The Emotional Impact of Race

As the product of interracial love, my parents began to teach me about the importance of racial equality from the moment I was born. Race has always been a topic discussed freely and frequently in our home. Oftentimes, my education on the topic came from simply listening.

Listening to my parents recount the difficulties they faced from family and society for choosing to be together at a time when interracial love was considered taboo.

Hearing my mother tell me to speak loudly and proudly when I say “I am biracial” as my introductory fact about myself to my all-white third grade class.

Paying attention to my father recounting stories of being racially profiled by the police while out on a run, despite him wearing nothing but track shorts and sneakers.

Observing my parents having the “race” conversation with my brother on how to stay safe in white America.

Noticing my father say “What’s up, brother” followed by a nod to a lone black stranger, signaling solidarity in a predominantly white town.

I also listened to the silence of my white peers on the topic of race. The closest we got to it was when people would meet me and ask, “What are you?” in an attempt to make sense of my racial ambiguity. On one occasion after hearing my response of “my dad is African American, my mom is Irish,” my peer then asked my ‘permission’ to start using the n-word. I quickly learned that their conception of race was much different than mine. While conversations on race are commonplace in my home, it appeared lack of conversations on race was just as commonplace in theirs.

By way of my profession as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, I am still listening. I stand in the unique position of allowing all patients, regardless of race, to feel they can be open with me. I recognize the gift in this as a way to help all and I protect this entrustment with the utmost care.

As a provider of color, my black patients can see their feelings and thoughts are being met by someone who understands from lived experience what it is like to be black in America. Often, when first asked how they are handling everything, I tend to get a noncommittal shrug with a blank “you know” face. This simple action speaks to the notion of what it means to be black in America — living in perpetual survival mode. It means developing such a specific sense of mental fortitude in an effort to still enjoy daily life, despite the significant negative things that surround you. I would be naive to assume the conversation should stop there, though. If I prod a bit further, I can see the faucet being turned on. The outpouring of emotions emerge so rapidly, it almost seems impossible to turn them off. Angry. Sad. Fearful. Hopeful. Exhausted. Numb. And that is where our work begins.

These times are not emotionally triggering for my black patients because they have been unaware of the systemic racism that our country has been built on. Rather, they are overwhelmed by the magnitude at which it presents itself today, rendering them unable to escape it. Their voices, no longer silenced by years of oppression, can be heard as clearly as George Floyd’s final words of “I can’t breathe” from beneath the crushing knee of a racist cop. Together, my patients and I process the decades of emotional repression they have kept bottled up inside in an effort to survive. We process the soul crushing blows as we watch police drive their cars into protests. The pain of tear gas filling their lungs. Simply because we are fighting for basic human rights.

For my non-black patients, the concept of race for them is often packaged up neatly in a box and put on a shelf in an attempt to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that accompany it. In our time together, however, they are allowed to open up that box and unpack their experience with it, free from judgment.

When they talk, I hear themes of similar emotions to that of my black patients. Anger, sadness, fear…but also guilt and shame. It is as if the bubble has been popped and now everyone, not just black people, are aware of how widespread racism is in America. As a result, many of my patients are overwhelmed with their emotions and do not know how to process them. “White guilt” has been a common theme amongst my non-black patients and manifests in a variety of ways.

When I see a patient become so distraught and tearful over the topic as she chokes out the words, “I just want to say sorry to black people for the way this country has treated them.”

Or, my patient with OCD. Two weeks ago, she was “stable.” Now, she has been struggling with a significant increase in intrusive, obsessive thoughts of guilt after she realized she once dated someone who was overtly racist and she stayed silent.

When my patients recount these stories to me, they often finish with, “But I have no right to feel this way. I don’t fear for my life the way they do.” I would not be doing my job or my patients justice if I dismissed these emotions. Similarly to the ‘all lives matter versus Black Lives Matter debate’, it is not that their emotions do not matter. All emotions are valid. Right now, though, it’s not about sitting in our guilt or sadness that we feel for the black community. It is about taking those emotions and utilizing them to serve the black community, for they are the ones whose lives are at stake. In order to do this, we must take the time to explore our emotions and the places in which they stem from.

Guilt arises from our moral conscience. When we feel guilty, it is because we have violated a moral code. It can stem from an act of commission, such as a time in which we committed an act of racism. Or, it can come from an act of omission, in which we failed to go against a racist act. During our time together, my patients and I have begun to explore these instances in their lives and the extent to which they have benefitted from systemic racism. In other words — white privilege.

I’m not surprised my patients feel overwhelmed with guilt when they become aware of their white privilege. I too benefit from white privilege, despite being half black. The Irish blood that courses through my veins provides a lighter pigment to my skin and protects me like body armor from people knowing I’m black. Just like I’ve been mindful of racism from a young age, I have always known that I benefit from “light skin privilege.” Being cognizant of this has forced me to work harder at educating myself and becoming better at being anti-racist, rather than sliding by on the curtails of my racial ambiguity.

This is where I begin to challenge my non-black patients. White guilt can be negative, if we choose to let it consume us and do nothing actionable from it.

What will the words “I’m so sorry” do for a black person should they hear them? What will sitting in our feelings of guilt and shame do for the black community? Not much. But what if we express that repentance through action? What if we dedicate the rest of our time on Earth to educate ourselves, donate, sign petitions, vote, support black businesses and use our platforms of privilege to help further lift the voices of black people? What if instead of focusing on the times we stayed silent, we focused on learning to speak up during uncomfortable conversations and protests?

This is what being a true, anti-racist ally looks like. By pushing ourselves to take uncomfortable, negative emotions and transforming them into positive action, the narrative shifts. Instilling this mindset not just in ourselves but in the generations that we raise plants seeds of change.

At the end of one of my challenging sessions with a non-black patient of mine, she simply sat back and said, “Wow, I’ve never had such an extensive conversation on race with a provider before. Then again, I’ve never had a provider of color.” These words continue to echo loudly in my head accompanied by a potent sense of hope that we are truly on the cusp of a great revolution.

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