I have to admit that I felt numb when I learned about Alton Sterling being killed by police in Louisiana. Emotional numbness is an understandable response to being overloaded with emotionally difficult information. Numbness occurs when our body and brain decide to conserve our energy and emotional resources by limiting our response. When I read the news about Philando Castile being murdered in Minneapolis the numbness could no longer hold. I think we all are feeling a complex combination of emotions including: anger, rage, fear, sadness, exhaustion, heartbreak, denial, and hopelessness. All of these feelings are understandable; none should be judged.
So what is happening? Why are we reacting so strongly? Why is there an outpouring of emotion on social media following yet another police murder? My answer: we are being traumatized.
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing event. In the field of psychology we typically connect trauma to experiencing an immediate life-threatening event (e.g. rape, severe accident, natural disaster). It is clear to me that though some of us in the black community have not faced the direct threat of being shot at or having a gun pointed in our face, we are experiencing trauma. The repeated exposure to videos, images, and knowledge of black people being killed by police without due cause is traumatizing. It makes us feel unsafe, it causes anxiety, and can strain relationships; all symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
When a black person gets killed by a police officer and we respond with outrage and sorrow those of us who speak out are often asked (by people in and outside of our community) why we are not as upset by “black on black crime.” We are upset by the shooting and killing going on in poor black communities and many people are working to stop this violence. However, it is essential to note that the kids who are killing each other are not paid by tax payers and have not taken an oath to serve and protect citizens. This is why we respond to police killings differently than we respond to violence in the community. Protesting is a way to get the attention of people in power to express discontent about systemic problems and hold politicians accountable.
It is important to recognize that there is a connection between our youth witnessing police and American society disregard black lives and black youth killing each other. Our black kids are growing up with the implicit knowledge that American society does not think they matter as reflected through lack of police accountability, failing schools, and neglected public housing among other things. This leads people to feel hopeless. After hearing about police officers killing black people without consequence all of your life, you might be more likely to kill the kid down the block who made you angry or kill yourself when you are feeling depressed. The black community has worked tirelessly since we were stolen from Africa, to reinforce the worth, beauty, and brilliance of our black children and we are fighting an uphill battle. Unfortunately, the negative messages about black people coming from mainstream society are often internalized and have negative consequences.
Part of the reason that people in the black community respond so strongly after another one of us has been needlessly killed by police is because it hurts so deeply. It is an explicit reminder that our lives are not valued and respected. This amplifies the implicit reminders that we are not welcome here. The sideways glance and being followed when we walk into an upscale department store. The concern that if we make a wrong move in predominantly white spaces we may be treated poorly or killed. These experiences contribute to our trauma.
We are tired of being targeted and questioned and thrown away. We are exhausted from daily attempts to prove our humanity. To prove that we deserve to live freely and safely. We are traumatized by the constant reminders that we are not safe. That the people who are supposed to serve and protect us often see us as threats to be killed without question.
What to do
Obviously, there are numerous systemic reforms that need to take place and there need to be radical changes in policing. I may write another post sharing my thoughts on that later However, given my professional knowledge as a psychologist, my recommendations in this post will focus on how we can take care of ourselves in the wake of another traumatic experience.
Allow and express your emotions constructively
This blog post is part of me doing this for myself. Whether it’s posting on social media, calling up a friend or family member, organizing a protest, or sitting quietly to reflect. Allow yourself to feel what’s coming up for you. Suppressing your emotions will be unhelpful in the long run.
Moderate your exposure
Pay attention to how much exposure to news coverages and videos you can handle. I try to avoid watching the videos of people being murdered because I know it is too much for me emotionally. There is no right or wrong way to do this, just figure out what works for you and don’t judge others for doing something different.
Take care of yourself
Being emotionally overwhelmed is exhausting. Try to keep eating and exercising regularly. I saw a lot of posts about people having difficulty sleeping, which is understandable. Try not to read news articles or watch videos right before bed. If you are having a hard time calming your mind consider doing a Body Scan for Sleep.
Connect to your community
Find a community of people that you can talk to and connect with. Ask someone you’re comfortable with for a hug or to be held. Social support will help you to not feel alone in your sorrow and mourning.