Waiting to Exhale
A Black psychotherapist reflects on the backlash if we don’t get the kind of change we need
Let me be clear: I support the National Rebellion, The Uprising, the “civil unrest” that’s been underway since May 25, 2020. As a U.S.-born, middle-aged Black woman, I believe it is long-overdue. However, I’ve been dreading the backlash to them. As a psychotherapist who works with Black and Brown adults, I’ve been waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Clients who didn’t see themselves as particularly political before, wept bitterly as we discussed the murder of George Floyd. My suggestion that millions of Black people are grieving — not only another death at the hands of the police, but also the death of their fantasy, their hope that America values us — resonated with them.
When the mass demonstrations began, clients who struggle with depression and anxiety felt “invigorated” by participating in them and told me that they had “conviction” and purpose now. From a mental health perspective, my clients’ decisions to participate in The Uprising makes perfect sense — even though we’re still in a pandemic that disproportionately kills Black and Brown people, and in a recession. After suffering through a forced national lockdown, long-standing health and economic disparities, high rates of student loan debt, decades of underfunded schools, high unemployment rates and mass layoffs, the collective trauma of COVID-19, and anti-Asian racism, the match that lit the fuse for many of us was a young Black woman’s video of yet another Black murder. I’m impressed by the protesters’ level of organization, creativeness, and stamina. However, I didn’t realize until Week Three of The Rebellion that I’d been literally holding my breath. See, I’ve read about and seen versions of this story before. I’d been waiting for the violent and aggressive reactions of insecure, terrified white people who’ve drank the White Supremacy Kool-Aid all their lives. But more importantly, I’ve also been waiting to see what my clients’ and other Black and Brown people’s emotional reactions will be if we don’t see the sea change tens of thousands of people across the country have demanded.
Hell, I don’t know what my reactions will be and I’ve never had faith in this country’s willingness to do right by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
Part of doing the right thing is defunding the police. Yes, local and state governments and federal officials have proclaimed their determination to do so and instead, re-fund the institutions that provide the security and safety all of our communities need. For example, an education system in which resources are shared equitably and that actually teaches all children, a healthcare system that puts care before profit, the creation of quality affordable housing for all, and mental health services for all who need them. However, as Angela Davis said recently, we need to “translate some of the energy and passion into transforming institutions.” Elected officials know that police unions will fight them tooth and nail for the billions the police receive, but I also suspect that these officials lack the political will to defund the police because they’re more focused on the interests of the political and economic establishment than We The People.
As people who’ve experienced individual and community racial trauma, xenophobia, economic divestment from and neglect of their neighborhoods, and misogynoir, most of my 20- and 30-something-year-old clients aren’t focused on these things. They just want “the liberty and justice for all” that were promised to them when they were made to pledge allegiance to a flag in school or during their naturalization ceremony. Liberty to pursue their dreams without working multiple jobs just to barely survive financially. Liberty to work and live anywhere they wish, without worrying about environmental racism or redlining. Justice for all of the Black and Brown cis and transpeople who were killed by the police because of their intersectional identities. Justice for the Black youth and young adults who’ve died by suicide because living in an anti-Black country was too much.
In the midst of the massive gatherings and calls for liberty and justice, I’ve noticed articles about White backlash to the protests, in cities and towns across the nation. When I read the first article, I looked at my wife and said, “There it is. That’s what I was waiting for.” When she looked at me quizzically, I said, “I didn’t want this to happen, but I was waiting to hear about backlash to the protests. And here’s the first article I’ve read about it.” I wasn’t angry or scared; I was resolute and resigned for I know this country’s history. There are too many times when angry mobs of White poor and working-class men that didn’t know that they’d been played, duped, and used by the wealthy, took out their frustration and feelings of impotence on Black and Brown communities. Instead of raging against the system that strategically conquers us by dividing us, these men attack those who they’ve been told are the reason why they have been unsuccessful. Today, gangs of angry White men of all ages have engaged in counter-protests, while others arrive with the express intent of verbally abusing multiracial groups of protesters, threatening them with physical harm, and sometimes, actually perpetrating violence against protesters and bystanders alike.
While I am concerned about these fear-driven, racist movements, I’m more focused on the emotional backlash, the psychological fallout my clients and millions of Black and Brown people will experience if this multiracial class rebellion does not translate to the kind of structural changes we’ve so desperately needed for too long. What if White allyship doesn’t translate into an ever-growing mass of White accomplices, a cadre of anti-racist White people willing to use their collective advantages to disrupt the system? While there is a history of multiracial coalitions successfully working together, what if decades of mutual suspicion impede their ability to collaborate to harness the collective rage, grief, and pain and channel them into the long, messy process of structural change? And worse, what if the economic and political establishments refuse to address our needs? Personally and professionally, I focus on Black and Brown hearts, bodies, and spirits.
I wonder what will happen if the millions of Black and Brown dreams of liberty and justice continue to be deferred. Will they explode and if so, what will that look like? As an ardent student of US history, I shudder to think.