The accomplished writer and cultural critic James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” 

The rage Baldwin speaks of references the anger and indignation many of us who are Black in America live with as a result of racism and oppression. While Atlanta and its surrounding metro areas have a strong reputation for advancing civil and human rights, many Atlantans wrestle with questions concerning how racial oppression impacts their mental health.

More specifically, The Atlanta Voice wanted to seek a better understanding of the extent to which psychological trauma, rooted in institutional racism and cultural bias, impacts the quality of Black life, and what can be done to combat this challenge.

To help us answer these questions, The Atlanta Voice turned to:
• psychologist Dr. Ifetayo Ojelade, a specialist in trauma, diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder and adult children of dysfunctional parents;
• sociologist E. Howard Grigsby, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater; and,
• behavioral expert and national media commentator Cleo Manago.

Internalized Racial Oppression

According to public health researchers at the University of Kansas, when people are targeted, discriminated against or oppressed over a period of time, they often believe and make part of their self-image the myths and misinformation that society communicates to them about their group.

“We’ve heard the phrase, ‘n*ggas ain’t sh*t,’ ” said Manago. “When people say that, they are exhibiting a sign and symptom of internalized oppression. I call it, ‘NAS syndrome,’ because what that phrase reflects is a stated belief that Black people are inferior to other groups of people.

“That statement reflects a predominate anti-Black view in this country that promotes the notion that we are less attractive, less intelligent, less industrious and more pathological than any other ethnic group of people,” he continued. 

Other signs and symptoms of internalized oppression can be the habit some Black people have of choosing to do business with a white contractor over a Black contractor out of fear that the service provided by the Black contractor will be subpar and unsatisfactory.

“Many Black people are walking around in a white accommodationist trance; we are caught up in a white supremacy trauma trance as a result of a system that has trained us to not protect ourselves and to value and protect the predominate white cultural values at all costs,” Manago said.

He further argues that this trance, combined with the effects of internalized racial oppression, is part of a set of social determinants that contribute to the vast disparities that exist in health, education and economic development in Black communities.

“With proper trance-breaking interface, we can awaken and become more constructive people,” he says.

The million-dollar question is: how do we break the shackles and free our minds?

Healing Racial Trauma

There is an African proverb that says, “You cannot heal what you will not acknowledge.”

Institutional racism is embedded deep within American society. According to Manago, one of the solutions to properly address the insidious nature of racism is for parents to educate themselves and their children about how systems of oppression work, rather than just discussing the inequities that exist for Black people.

“Many times, parents are afraid to talk to their children about how racism works because it is a challenging topic to address,” Manago said. “Many times, people will say, ‘I don’t want my child to be angry or hate white people.’…To have parents who do not make the space to actually engage and talk to their children about how that system works is neglect.” 

Neglect is a strong word. Especially given the reality that many parents have not worked through their own struggles with racism and internalized oppression. 

“If you don’t see yourself as valuable, than psychologically, you will not be well. You are not going to protect yourself or your children,” Ojelade said. 

In her practice, Ojelade (pronounced O-jay-lah-day) specializes in providing therapy and counseling to adults who grew up in dysfunctional environments.

Ojelade said that many of her clients grew up in homes where caregivers struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, or as children, had major responsibility thrust upon them, adopting the role of parent or protector too fast and too soon in their young development.

“Many times, the underlying issues causing them to seek my help have to be unpacked by critically exploring how my clients perceive race and how those perceptions impact their self-concept,” she said.

Ojelade shared a few practical coping strategies to add to one’s toolbox of active resistance.

Five action items Dr. Ojelade recommend everyone commit to include: 

  1. Educate and empower ourselves about white supremacy and global imperialism.
  2. Constantly evaluate how white supremacy and internalized oppression impacts our day-to-day life. For example, with respect to our spiritual practices, ask yourself:  What is your concept of God?What does that image of God look like in your place of worshipDoes the church you belong to discuss matters concerning social justice?
  3. Learn and read about the history of Black and African people within the Diaspora. Our history does not begin with American slavery.
  4. Make an active effort to not consume sounds and images that are damaging. If the art or work does not uplift our community, don’t let it come across your phone, computer or television. 
  5. Don’t let someone’s agenda define how you see the fullness of Black life and your vision for living.

A message for the people

Scholar and sociologist E. Howard Grigsby expands on these and offers another perspective.

It is virtually impossible to heal from persistent and ongoing racial oppression,” Grigsby said. “Adaptive techniques and coping strategies are used to sustain [African-Americans and marginalized groups] during the struggle for social change.”

Grigsby’s research in sociological theory reveals that Black people must be on guard to protect themselves against physical hurt and abuse.

He argues that Black people struggling with internalized oppression rooted in systemic racism must cushion themselves against slander, humiliation and outright mistreatment by the gatekeepers of society.

“If Black people do not do this, they will live a life of pain and shock that’s unbearable,” Grigsby said. “We must develop what American sociologist W.I. Thomas refers to as the ‘Definition of the Situation.’”

The fundamental thought process behind the ‘Definition of the Situation’ concept is that reality is a social construct: it is not absolute but relative. The relativity of reality allows us to choose the response to acts and behavior.

Furthermore, the response or reaction selected determines the outcome or act that impacts our wellbeing.

“In this sense, the ‘definition of the situation’ may be viewed as a coping mechanism employed to cushion the impact of living in a milieu where racial hostility and bigotry abounds,” Grigsby explained. “This theory affords us the opportunity to reclaim our own power and set the stage for the critical analysis required to shift paradigms.”

Grigsby acknowledged that while most of the research on mental health and illness focuses on changing the individual, we must keep in mind that little attention to the environment which blocks people’s efforts to thrive and gain upward mobility is fully investigated.

This is especially true when the environment is racially hostile, he suggested. Grigsby challenges us to be more sensitive to that reality and for our community to continue to create the infrastructure to add more insight into these environmental factors.

According to all three health experts, the work to wholeness and wellness for many in our community is an ongoing process that calls on us to be more mindful and intentional in our friendships, romantic unions and places of worship and family interactions. 

Black people stand on the shoulders of brilliant minds that contributed scholarly research and writings that can guide us toward a more healthful state of mind. 

As Baldwin reminds, “We’ve already been paid for.”

Nourish Your Mind

Add these books to your home collection to learn more about how to combat institutional racism and internalized oppression.

  1. ”An American Dilemma,” Gunnar Myrdal, 1944
  2. ”Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Paulo Freire, 1970 
  3. ”The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Dr. Carter G. Woodson, 1933
  4. ”The Kerner Commission Report,” 1967
  5. ”The Social Construction of Reality,” Peter L. Berger & Thomas Luckmann, 1966
  6. ”The Definition of the Situation,” W.I. Thomas, 1923
  7. ”Black Skin White Masks,” Frantz Fanon, 1967
  8. ”The Souls of Black Folks,” W.E.B. Dubois, 1961
  9. ”Black Rage,” W.H. Grier & P.M. Cobbs, 1968
  10. ”Racism,” Anita Monte, 1972
  11. ”Power, Racism, and Privilege,” William J. Wilson, 1973
  12. ”Racial Oppression in America,” Robert Blauner, 1972
  13. ”The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin, 1983
  14. ”The Impacts of Racism on White Americans,” B.P. Bowser & R.G. Hunt (editors), 1981
  15. ”Institutional Racism:  A Primer on Theory and Strategies for Social Change (2nded),” Shirley Better, 2008
  16. ”Race Matters,” Cornel West, 1993
  17. ”Oppression: A Socio-History of Black-White Relations in America,” J.H. Turner, R. Singleton Jr, and D. Musick, 1984
  18. ”Institutional Racism in America,” L.L Knowles & K. Prewitt, 1969
  19. ”Long Way to Go,” Jonathan Coleman, 1977
  20. ”White Supremacy & Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 2001
  21. ”Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” Andrew Hacker, 1992
  22. ”Erasing Racism,” Molefi Kete Asante, 2003
  23. ”The Isis Papers,” Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, 1982

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