[Formerly titled “Racism is Killing Me Too”]
My father had high blood pressure. My husband has high blood pressure. I have friends that have high blood pressure. I have never had high blood pressure. Until now.
Hypertension is known as the silent killer for its absence of obvious symptoms. According to heart.org, “The prevalence of high blood pressure (HBP or hypertension) in African-Americans in the United States is among the highest in the world.”
Over my lifetime, I have been fairly active and conscientious about my diet, albeit with bouts of inconsistency. Like many people, my weight has fluctuated as well, but I’ve always enjoyed consistently healthy blood pressure readings. Without fail, my BP has always been well below the normal guideline of 120/80. I naively believed that I had inherited some protection from my mother who, despite having health complications before her death, never had high blood pressure (at least to my knowledge).
We have a blood pressure monitor at home so that my husband can monitor his hypertension. I take mine sporadically when the mood strikes me, mostly to give me something to feel good about.
On the morning of May 27th, my blood pressure registered at a normal and healthy 112/77(mm/Hg). It was the morning after I had watched the George Floyd video. The video horrified and shocked me, yet I don’t think that it had completely sunk in. In the days that ensued, my blood register would begin to show a different picture.
2020 Coronavirus Changes and Overwhelm
No shock here — to say that 2020 was a stressful year before Memorial Day would be an understatement. I’d sometimes marvel about how my parents had never lived through a global pandemic while realizing that they lived through some seriously crazy crap of their times (different story, different day). Nevertheless, here is my story.
In late January 2020, our family of four finally moved into the not-quite-finished home that we purchased in 2016. Through many twists in the tale, it was still under construction. We had exhausted all avenues that allowed us to rent one home while paying for the other. After having temporarily moved into a one-bedroom apartment for a couple of months, we moved in when the house reached a semi-livable state.
In addition, I closed my office because we could no longer afford the rent, and our team adopted a work-from-home environment. In retrospect, both of these moves proved to be more timely than we could have predicted.
I was adapting well to my remote work situation. For years, we have supported our clients remotely, so our systems were easily transferred, and I found myself extremely productive without the distractions of other people in the office. Then, Kobe Bryant died. Then came Coronavirus.
As good citizens, our family accepted the limitations of quarantine, understanding the necessity and the benefits of keeping each other safe in this world. I siloed my news consumption to once per day to temper the emotional effect of watching the daily, increasing death count and to minimize the likelihood of my own. I began to communicate with clients more often to help them apply for SBA funding and its constantly changing guidance, and in this sense, I began to actualize more meaning in the business.
We were providing an essential, more valuable service to clients than we had in the past because they were relying on our guidance to help keep their businesses afloat. I recognized the paradox of lamenting the growing number of COVID-19 cases while simultaneously enjoying masked evening walks with my husband now that working from home had eliminated his commute and granted us more quality time.
Our kids, at the end of their senior year in high school, had to adjust to a new way of learning, sacrificing their friends and their social lives. I lamented the vanishing of their proper high school graduations; I had waited for this moment for all of their lives. I know — it is their moment, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel personally deprived of the occasion. Even so, we participated in the ceremonies and are still working on the planning of a drive-through celebration.
I do what I can to support a happy and mentally healthy lifestyle. I meditate. I journal. I exercise and limit my social media consumption. I keep track of the things that I’m grateful for, make vision boards, set goals, and pray. I do yoga. I try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. All of these things keep me sane and productive, especially during a pandemic.
And then, during these “neo-normal” trials of life in 2020, we were stunned by the reminder of the ever-present reality of racism. Black people in America live with the constant undercurrent of injustice that envelops our daily existence. To continue to be productive members of society, some of us sweep our feelings under the rug until the next inevitable wave of news makes it impossible to avoid.
I ran 2.23 miles for Ahmaud Arbery. I was angry at Amy Cooper and how she tried to use the power of her whiteness against Christian Cooper simply because she felt inconvenienced. I remember talking about it the next morning (the Tuesday following Memorial Day) and hearing that there was another killing, but at that point, I hadn’t yet caught up on the news.
And then I did. We all did.
Racism x 10¹⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰⁰
I pray that nobody will ever understand how a monster could find it acceptable to mercilessly kneel on another human’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds on camera with his hands in his pockets while both George Floyd and onlookers pleaded for him to stop. And it doesn’t stop there. We next learn that Breonna Taylor was tragically killed by law enforcement for no reason whatsoever.
And we grieve. I believe that individually and collectively, nationally and globally, we are all progressing through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) as defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler. For my part, as of the morning of May 27th and my aforementioned normal blood pressure reading, I believe that I was in the shock/denial stage. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible.²
No matter how often we deem racism on video as a confirmation of its pervasiveness and acceptance within the American law enforcement culture, a tiny piece of me is shocked every time I am slapped in the face by its existence.
I quickly advanced from denial to some mixture of anger and depression, as I posted my first social media post expressing outrage, sadness, and exhaustion in the early morning hours of May 28th. The more I sat with the emotion of having witnessed George Floyd’s murder, it became impossible to focus on anything else.
In our household, my husband and I were in a zombie-like state. Tears, more or less constantly, dripped from the outer corners of my eyes. Company team meetings became more of a support group, where we shared feelings and news stories. I often heard my son in his room playing video games, and he finally shared his anger with me one day at 3:30 am — most of it being directed at the performative allies in his senior class. My daughter and I have talked often and recalled the time that she first realized that racism was real and asked me, “They know we don’t have control over our skin color, right?”
Simultaneously, I descended into social media inundation. I posted, shared, and retweeted; I wrote a Medium story about breaking shit, and I spiraled into watching video after video and reading article after article about systemic racism and injustice.
In some ways, it was helpful to stay connected and to see the collective outrage and shared support. On the other hand, not only was I seeking and sharing knowledge, but I also began to judge what (and if) my friends were posting — okay, my white friends — noting their silence as unacceptable. Especially if they were posting about things that I evaluated as unimportant (like the beauty of their latest gardening successes).
I know that anyone with a heart, a conscience, and a shred of decency is hurt and angered by the killing of George Floyd. Even people who are unsympathetic to the protests, describing protesters as “criminals, looters and/or thugs,” agree that the actual killing of George Floyd was wrong and that the ex-cop who did it is a worthless piece of shit. [Perhaps we can exclude Candace Owens who found that the best use of her time was to vilify and criminalize George Floyd].
We have been mutually traumatized, at the very least, by witnessing the actual murder of a human being in an extraordinarily inhumane manner over a prolonged eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Even more, we have all been called to action in some way to make real change, even if we don’t know exactly what to do.
We absorb all of this: the grief, the trauma, the fear, and the responsibility. It all comes at a personal cost. Perhaps it’s the weight of accepting white privilege, the time to educate ourselves or others, the loss of our identity, the duty to act — to speak out, vote, and connect.
It seems that for me, some of the payment has been measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
What the Hell — Hypertension?
The next time that I measured my blood pressure on June 1st, I had to do a double-take. It registered at 137/96 (mm Hg). This is Stage 2 hypertension. I took it two more times that day, and the readings also indicated Stage 2 hypertension — 146/91 (mm Hg) and 128/90 (mm Hg). Until this time, I have never seen a reading like this. I suppose I’ve taken it for granted.
I have downloaded an app to keep track of my readings, and since then, I have taken it multiple times per day. Between June 2 and June 11th, all but a few readings fall in the Stage 1 hypertension range. Stage 1 hypertension is a systolic pressure ranging from 130 to 139 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure ranging from 80 to 89 mm Hg.
What could have caused a person with a history of normal blood pressure to have a sudden increase like this? I’m no medical professional, but the effects of stress on hypertension have been widely documented. Factors affecting blood pressure through stress include white coat hypertension, job strain, race, social environment, and emotional distress (emphasis mine).¹
It is not race, but rather, racism that systematically creates negative social, physical, and psychological outcomes for Black and other marginalized people. The concept of race was largely advanced by Samuel Morton, the father of scientific racism, and was used to justify the horrors of slavery and colonialism. To this day, although this science has long since been debunked, racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods, and our sense of self.
I reached out to my doctor who advised me to monitor my blood pressure less often (every other day), make some lifestyle changes, and to schedule an office visit if there is no improvement in a few months. I can consider this a wake-up call, and commit to losing some weight, lowering my sodium intake, and increasing my exercise minutes. And I will.
Racism is Terrorism
Let’s recognize that I didn’t choose to deviate from my normal self-care routines. If I had my way, I’d wake up to the sound of my alarm and sit for 30 minutes with my breath and the sound of Tibetan Singing Bowls before journaling and writing a few affirmations. I’d do quarantined yoga with YouTube and look at my vision board for a few minutes before starting my day.
I don’t have this privilege. When Black people see people who look like us repeatedly murdered with no consequence for their assailants, we are reminded that we live in a constant state of terror. We are plunged into reminders of our vulnerability, much in the same way as all Americans after seeing planes fly into the World Trade Center or after witnessing news of a mass shooting.
Racism is terrorism, multiplied by the fact that it is institutionalized.
Two Mondays after George Floyd’s death, I woke up with a renewed commitment to radical self-care, and I have seen some limited improvement. I have had three normal blood pressure readings. It is not enough, however, to believe that the fallout of racism can be reversed with 30 minutes of cardio, meditation, and affirmations.
Death by racism must stop, whether by gun, knee, or disease. All lives can’t matter if Black lives don’t. Until our institutions are rebuilt, Black lives will remain at risk. Not just those being murdered in the streets, but also those being taken quietly by the despair of inequality and the surrender of the “American dream.”
Here’s the call to action — do something. Educate yourselves. Vote. Protest. See color and see people. Don’t stop until there is change. Don’t stop challenging and testing institutions that are in place to uphold the rights of all citizens of all colors. No group marginalized. We must all work to revolutionize the system. Our Black lives depend on it.
¹ Kulkarni S, O’Farrell I, Erasi M, Kochar MS. Stress and hypertension. WMJ: Official Publication of the State Medical Society of Wisconsin. 1998 Dec;97(11):34–38.
² https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/, A Message from David Kessler