The Emotional Impact Of Racism, And How To Be An Ally In The Fight Against It
Demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, 5 June 2020. Photograph by Mr Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
In the days since Mr George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died while a white police officer knelt on his neck, in broad daylight, in the Powderhorn Park area of Minneapolis, millions of people have taken to the streets – despite the global pandemic – in a multiracial coalition of protest. Towns and cities across the world have witnessed citizens bending a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds in a quiet solidarity that reveals an awakening to the fact that racism, white privilege and the gulf that exists between the realities of both are issues that affect all of us.
As the world learns to talk about race, it’s time to start tackling the mental and emotional harm levied by racism. For black men, the many stories of racial abuse that have been shared over the past few weeks won’t have come as a surprise; however, knowing what to do in and after such situations is an unfortunate necessity. For the rest of us, educating ourselves on how to be strongly anti-racist and to provide support is a good place to start.
“Genetic research suggests that when black men experience racism, but don’t have a buffer from it, it affects the length of time they live on the planet,” states Dr Howard C Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania, a clinical and consulting psychologist who specialises in racial stress and racial trauma, and how it can affect every stage of life.
MR PORTER’s Health In Mind initiative is dedicated to helping men lead happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. For this extended HIM feature, we use the experiences of four black men to examine racism, while Dr Stevenson and other experts in the field discuss the mental toll it takes on its victims, and strategies for how to tackle it – whether you’re black or white.
In his work with the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, Dr Stevenson has identified that “most racial encounters in our society are stressful because most people don’t want to talk about them”. If you’re not a person of colour and you’re deciding whether the potential pain of the process is worth it, we refer you to the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” The question is: what kind of friend do you want to be – to yourself and to others?
01. Holding onto our humanity
Mr Christian Cooper is a Harvard graduate, an editor and a keen bird watcher. He’s also black. On the same day that Mr George Floyd’s life was snuffed out, Mr Cooper was birdwatching in the Ramble, an area of Central Park where dogs must be kept on a leash. When he spotted a dog running free, Mr Cooper asked the animal’s owner, Ms Amy Cooper (no relation), to “leash her dog”. She refused and when he started filming her, she threatened to call the police. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she warned.
Mr Cooper stood his ground: “I decided I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing as if I’m anybody else and she’s going to have to do what she’s going to do.” The millions who have since watched the video of their encounter bear witness to Ms Cooper feigning fear and distress. “She basically pulled the pin on the race grenade and tried to lob it at me,” Mr Cooper said in an interview with Ms Gayle King on CBS News.
But what if Mr Cooper had not filmed their encounter? And what if the police had arrived while they were still in the park? Mr Cooper’s observation about the incident is particularly powerful: “I decided consciously that I was not going to participate in my own dehumanisation by kow-towing to her threats,” he told ABC’s The View.
Experts in conflict resolution and social injustice flag dehumanisation and “othering” as twin bedrocks of marginalisation and social division. “Othering is not about liking or disliking someone,” says john a powell, a civil rights expert and director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California. “It’s based on the conscious and unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group.”
Mr Cooper understood this, recognising that he, as a black man, was perceived by the woman he was talking to as being worth less in society than she was. By standing his ground he might not have changed her mindset, but it ensured her actions were not allowed to diminish his spirit. “Dehumanisation is an existential question,” remarks Dr Stevenson. “It’s not just about the event, it’s about whether I have a right to walk freely in the world.
“There are three steps in the work we do to raise people’s racial literacy: read, recast, resolve,” he adds. “Resolving means that you walk away from a racial encounter having made a decision that you define as healthy and safe, but that matches your values. And that it isn’t an underreaction or an overreaction.”
02. Decoding racial threat
“I was in holiday mode, having a good time and looking forward to some sunshine and sand,” recalls Joshua (whose name has been changed for this story). During the flight, he got up to use the bathroom. On his way back to his seat, he was stopped first by a young boy and then by an older man. Both asked Joshua if he had seen a mobile phone while he was in the bathroom, with the man going as far as to ask him to turn out his pockets. “I had nothing to hide so I thought, ‘fine’, and did,” he says.
Joshua returned to his seat and went to sleep for the rest of the flight. “When we landed,” he recalls, “the plane doors opened and a group of armed police boarded. An air steward pointed in my direction.” The memory triggers Joshua’s tears. “Imagine standing at the front of the plane with hundreds of people walking past while you’re surrounded by the police,” he says. “What do they think? ‘There’s the black guy, he’s a thief, he’s done whatever.’” No one else on the plane was searched. No one else on the plane was black.
“I remember thinking, ‘I want this to be over, it’s horrible, so act in a manner that makes it as smooth as possible,’” says Joshua. “‘Relax, do what they ask and then move on.’ If I had been uppity, that may have prolonged the situation.”
Racial encounters can turn on a split second, which is why it’s critical to decode the level of threat in any situation and match your response to it. “We call it ‘recasting’ in our training sessions,” explains Dr Stevenson. “It’s based on the idea that some people are threatened by a racial moment. We work to a scale – one to 10, where eight, nine and 10 are like facing a tsunami. If you face a racial encounter like it’s an eight, nine, or 10, you’ll be making poor decisions because your brain has gone into lockdown. That means you lose peripheral vision and hearing. Your body will also be focused in a way that makes it great for a crisis but not great for relationships or interpreting accurately.”
Recasting involves understanding that your default reaction may be an eight or higher, and bringing that down to a five, six or seven. “We use a strategy called CLCBE: Calculate, Locate, Communicate, Breathe and Exhale,” says Dr Stevenson. “It’s extremely helpful in decision-making because these moments can make us feel extremely helpless.”
The first thing to do is calculate how intense your feelings are on a scale of one to 10. If you have more than one feeling, acknowledge that. Then locate where in your body you feel those feelings and what it feels like; the more specific the better. Give yourself feedback on what you can do to cope in the moment. Breathe in for a count of four and breathe out for a count of six; this gets oxygen to your brain as well as opening up peripheral vision and hearing. “We train people to do all these steps in under two minutes,” says Dr Stevenson. “It takes practice, but it’s possible for kids as young as 11 to master it.”
03. Standing up for yourself, and for victims of racism
“You make choices as a black person,” explains Bamidele. “Which spaces are safe for you to be in, which are not? When do you say your piece and when do you hold your peace?” Racist chanting at football matches is a depressingly familiar occurrence, although Bamidele, a Tottenham Hotspur fan, says he never heard anything when he watched his team play in England. After moving to Spain, however, he went to watch Spurs play at Real Madrid and witnessed his own club’s fans chanting racist abuse at Mr Emmanuel Adebayor, a black player who formerly played for Arsenal, Tottenham’s local rivals.
The experience remained with Bamidele and he decided to speak up at a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou. “It didn’t take long for the racist chants to start,” he recalls. “Every time the Madrid player Marcelo got the ball, sections of the crowd made monkey chants. Then the guy above me started shouting ‘monkey’ at him. I could have gone then and confronted him, but I waited until the end. By that point, it was much easier to speak to him one-to-one – or rather one-to-seven. The guy and his friends protested that it wasn’t them, that all they were doing was supporting Barça. But I sensed they were shocked at being called out.”
Speaking up against wrongdoing that isn’t directed at you can be hard. It’s much easier to let it pass, but what if everyone did that? The person being abused walks unsupported in their misery, while the abuser gains confidence.
Ms Jo Broadwood is an expert in conflict transformation. She recommends three steps for offering support: notice, speak up, be safe. “Noticing is a difficult one,” she admits. “Groupthink comes into play, especially in work situations where unacceptable behaviour can slip under the radar. It helps to educate yourself and gain some understanding.”
Once your eyes are open, it’s time to find your voice. “By speaking up you’re letting the other person know that you see them, you see what’s happening, and you are going to name that it isn’t OK,” she says. Don’t expect your efforts to change the world, though: “A better expectation is to hope that by speaking up, you may stop further harm being done.”
Finally, protect yourself. “Be really clear that you are in a safe situation,” Ms Broadwood says. “Is there alcohol involved or you are on a train late at night? My experience is that it’s safer not to address the perpetrator, but instead to focus on the person who needs help. Speak to them as if the other people aren’t there, remembering to keep your voice calm and neutral to avoid inadvertently escalating the situation. Ask if they’re OK. Do they want some company? Would they like you to come and sit next to them?”
The attack on Michael was unequivocally racist. As he was being picked up from the pavement by a police officer, the six men who had just been pounding on his head were still shouting racist abuse at him.
Yet the police treated him as the aggressor. His claims that the attack was unprovoked fell on deaf ears. They remained unheard until CCTV footage, which his girlfriend had to lobby the police to obtain, showed Michael and his friend minding their own business in the cordoned-off smoking area of a nightclub in Liverpool before being set upon.
The seriousness of Michael’s injuries was clear. His eye had dropped in its socket, his eyelid was torn and his head was hideously swollen. Yet no ambulance was called for him. Instead, a friend took him in a cab to the nearest hospital, where he waited on a hard chair, unseen for hours. Across the corridor, he watched his attackers being treated for minor cuts. In the end, his friend put him in a taxi and they left Liverpool, heading home to Birmingham. When he walked into hospital in his home city, jaws dropped and he was seen immediately.
For Michael, the aftermath of that weekend involved a titanium disc to replace his shattered eye socket, reduced peripheral vision, nerve damage, life-long headaches, an eye that waters in the cold and three months recovering at a 30-degree angle – “If I’d lain flat on my back, it would have been game over.”
There is also the gnawing sense of injustice knowing that, despite clear CCTV footage showing six men attacking him, only two were ever charged and those two were not the most serious aggressors.
In the face of such visceral hate, how do you mend and stop your hurt becoming bitterness? “Honestly, it took a long time,” he says. “This has changed my behaviour. I’m hyper vigilant now, I don’t like having people behind me or in my personal space and groups of white men put me on guard. All these new behaviours are triggers that remind me of the attack.
“But while they changed me physically, I kept my mind. It didn’t start as a conscious decision, but when I was laying in that bed, I started reading. A lot. I only had one good eye, but I went through scores of self-help books, the kind rooted in Buddhist wisdom that challenge you to become more aware of yourself. And then using spiritual teaching to try and understand more.”
Being assaulted because you are different can cause a different kind of anxiety and raise different kinds of questions – questions about your very right to exist. “That is a kind of torture that I think we don’t account for,” Dr Stevenson says. “And then if it’s a justice issue and you go to the system and it doesn’t stand up for you, the sense that you don’t belong here is increased. That takes longer to heal.”
But you can heal. “There is evidence to show that standing up for yourself is a way of fighting back, even if it’s just against the microaggressions. The growth from those tragedies is asserting to yourself that you did not deserve it, but if it should happen again, you will have a strategy to protect yourself.”
Our collective conscious has been awakened by the death of Mr George Floyd, and collectively, we need to find a meaning in that senseless act. For those who haven’t experienced racism or are unaware of their own unconscious bias, that meaning will only come through education and learning and a commitment to being part of the necessary and long overdue change.
“Let George Floyd be an impetus for conversation, an impetus for prayer, an impetus for action and an impetus for asking what we can do to help create a kind and just global society,” urges Reverend Dr Michael B Beckwith, founder of Agape International Spiritual Centre, in an Instagram Live conversation titled “America Cries For Spiritual Healing”.
Five days before this article went live on MR PORTER, Mr Floyd was laid to rest. After the service, Dr Cornel West spoke on CNN. The words of this intellectual freedom fighter hold a lesson of hope, understanding and the reason why standing against racism is standing up for all of us.
“It was a heavy day and yet I was buoyed up because I saw in the hearts and souls and minds, not just of the Floyd family, but of the church, of the music, of the preaching, not one reference to hatred or revenge,” Dr West said. “It was all about love and justice in the great tradition of the best of black people – a people who have been hated chronically, systemically for 400 years, but have taught the world so much about love and how to love…
“The world of white supremacy may make being black a crime, but we refuse to get in the gutter, we’re going to come out swinging like Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali, in the name of love and justice… We’re doing it for the whole world because that’s the only hope for the world.”