Black vulnerability is strength
Updated: Sep 4, 2019
By Shayler Richmond
Systemic oppression and classism work as agents to keep low income and people of color psychologically deficient and mentally unbalanced, which heightens the importance of mental health.
“The way that black folks have been socialized to think about mental health is not in a way that actually allows them to access useful resources,” said Stephen Jefferson, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University, and trained clinical psychologist.
The systems embedded through the dominant culture in America systemically work to keep the oppressed people oppressed mentally and physically, and influence unhealthy behavior within non dominant cultures.
“We live in a racist culture where it is to the advantage of the racist system that people of color don’t seek resources that will make them stronger, so it’s not an accident that many African Americans are opposed to seeking medical and psychological help,” said Jefferson.
If we view how we traditionally feel about ourselves and one another as a social construct, we see the disposition of minorities in America is manufactured to keep the non dominant cultures on edge, similar to how many urban American cities were manufactured to keep minorities poor and unhealthy, with homes built on top of one another, liquor stores on every corner, and lack of access to public resources.
“It’s hard to pull together and work as a collective when no one is getting the resources they need, and if you begin to think pushing your neighbor off the cliff gives you a better chance of survival,” said Jefferson.
Traditionally African Americans function from an unsettling space where energy is required to recover from both ingrained generational traumas and new assaults, rather they be macro and systemic, or microaggressions, less obtrusive but still damaging.
“Our history of trauma added to the discrimination majority of us continue to face, whether experienced in our professional lives or walking down the street, we deal with a lot,” said Joi Rencher, practicing clinician, her studies surround social work and sociology focusing on race, class, gender and sexuality.
“Slavery still has a profound effect on us, it really wasn’t that long ago, and the effects that it had on our grandparents is being passed down generationally. We’re all experiencing trauma whether we are conscious of it or not. It presents itself in ways where we don’t know how to take care of ourselves and don’t know how to show affection for others. There are a multitude of ways it might manifest itself,” said Rencher.
African American being a non dominant culture, African Americans are constantly forced to manage not solely their own emotions but also the impressions of the dominant culture, while the dominant culture has never been required to comprehend the emotions of the non dominant cultures; this social construct has created a racial empathy gap; people don’t genuinely perceive pain in other races.
“It’s not just white doctors not seeing us as having the same feelings as other human beings, it’s ourselves not thinking we have the same feelings as other human beings,” said Jefferson. “When we’re depressed, we don’t classify it as being depressed, instead we say things like that’s a white person’s disorder, or mild anxiety. Our culture doesn’t frame for us a script where we fit into mental illness outside of maybe schizophrenia or sociopathy,” he continued.
Beyond the general need for African Americans to reframe how mental health is addressed, there are divergent destructive stigmas among African American women versus African American men.
“When seeking to address mental health concerns black men experience a degree of being ridiculed. Black women are reminded of their strength and where they come from, while black men are not only reminded of their strength but often emasculated,” said Rencher. “There is a perception that black folks are just strong, and any admittance that you can’t handle a situation or need help makes you weak,” she continued.
The buoyancy, persistence, resiliency and grace displayed by African American culture doesn’t make African Americans any less human with any less of a need to be psychologically sustained.
“There is an increased rate of suicide in black men between ages 18-25 because of this dismissive attitude and stigmatization of mental health,” said Rencher. “We’re in crisis and we need to pay attention. We need to work on destigmatizing the idea that we’re too strong to ask for help. We’re all human beings and we bleed the same, so we need to be able to ask for help,” she continued.
Acknowledging, discussing and understanding mental health concerns allow for present biases to be unpacked rather than further propelled and reinforced at face value. The choice to remain ignorant and not share knowledge is detrimental to individuals and communities, further limiting access.
“We need to continue having conversations and discussions around the common issues faced in the Black community that affect our mental health. The more we learn, the more knowledge we have to dispel restrictive ideas surrounding therapy and what a therapist looks like,” said Rencher.
To change any narrative a counter narrative must be presented, the destructive stigmas and traditions surrounding mental health in the African American community must be healed from the inside out.
“We are tricked into thinking that being vulnerable with other human beings is a sign of weakness because black people, especially black men, feel not being vulnerable is the only power they have over a system working against them, but the ability to be vulnerable is the ultimate form of strength” said Jefferson.
For treatment, evaluation or further discussion Rencher works at Integrative Empowerment Group, which treats primarily people of color and those who identify as LGBTQIA. Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.