The Queen & Slim Movie Explores Racism in America

4 tips for protecting your psyche in the face of racism.

Posted Nov 26, 2019

Image via iStock Photo
Source: Image via iStock Photo

The racial climate in America has been up and down over the course of history. We could say that the pendulum seems to be swing towards extremes. However, movies like Queen & Slim are timely and allow us to reflect on events in society through the lens of a romantic storyline.

In an interview about the movie, Lena Waithe, writer and producer, stated that "when black people see the police uniform, it represents something that can be scary, that can be dangerous. And it could be the end of your life”. Exposure to police interactions can trigger a negative emotional reaction for some people. According to psychological research, the trauma of racism and interpersonal trauma in the context of racial profiling may lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, or other distress (Bryant-Davis et al., 2017). Hence the dilemma of watching a movie like Queen & Slim. Although the movie addresses an important topic, you should be prepared to protect your mental health.

As a psychologist that studies Black mental health and the impact of racism on the Black community, Queen & Slim bring up many issues from the trauma of being Black in America to the importance of racial socialization and talking with children about racial differences. For decades, discrimination and racism have been an issue in American society. Psychological research has explored these challenges and has frequently reported on the negative emotions that result after repeated exposure to racist encounters (Bryant-Davis et al., 2017; Turner, 2019). In 2017, a report on stress and health published by the American Psychological Association noted that Black American youth and adults are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events that involve witnessing or experiencing violence compared to individuals from other ethnic and racial groups. These traumatic experiences also place Black Americans at a higher risk of psychological distress or developing poor mental health in the wake of witnessing racist encounters. Furthermore, when Black Americans experience mental health challenges, we are less likely to seek professional mental health services for healing (Turner, 2019). In my new book, Mental Health Among African Americans: Innovations in Research and Practice, I also describe the importance of therapists exploring the impact of racism and discrimination with their clients. Often as a therapist, we don't take the time to understand if the current racial climate is influencing our clients' functioning. To minimize the chances of negative psychological reactions, it is important to recognize your reactions to movies such as Queen & Slim.

Tips on Managing Emotional Reactions

People experience trauma and become distressed by events differently. Not everyone who directly or indirectly encounters tragic situations will be at risk of developing difficulties. Here are a few suggestions from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that might be helpful to consider as you watch Queen & Slim. 

Be Present: As you watch the movie, be aware of your emotions and feelings. You may be angry, sad, or hurt. According to NAMI, it is important to validate your emotions and realize that you are having a typical reaction to the experience. This self-validation is a part of healing and helps to remind you of emotions you are experiencing in reaction to the situation you are observing.

Breathe: What we know from psychological science is that when we witness racism and discrimination, our bodies have a physical reaction such as increased heart rate and difficulty breathing. One helpful strategy to regulate your body is to take slow, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose and breathe out slowly through your mouth. NAMI suggest that you inhale for 4 counts, hold for 2, and exhale for 6 to 8 counts. This activates the nervous system that helps your body calm down. You can also use my self-help mindfulness guide as another tool. 

Stimulate the body: Another reaction to stress or threat is muscle tension. To help the body relax, you can use what we as psychologists refer to as “progressive muscle relaxation”. One method of progressive muscle relaxation is to start tensing and relaxing muscle groups from your head to toe. For example, you might shrug your shoulders and then relax them. Hold the tension in your shoulders from about five to ten seconds and then relax for 30 to 60 seconds, and then repeat. Another muscle group may be to make a fist and then relax the hand.

Process the experience: According to NAMI, there is a small window that allows you to function without being triggered emotionally. This “window of tolerance” allows you to process events for a limited amount of time without experiencing intrusive thoughts, anxiety, or emotional numbing. The tools above may provide a way to stabilize your feelings to increase your ability to deal with difficult experiences. After watching Queen & Slim, it is also important that you have a safe space to process the movie. Find a group of family members, friends, or a therapist that you can openly discuss your reactions with and be validated. For more on coping with racism, visit the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture

Resources on Finding a Black Therapist

Copyright 2019 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

References

Bryant‐Davis, T., Adams, T., Alejandre, A., & Gray, A. A. (2017). The trauma lens of police violence against racial and ethnic minorities. Journal of Social Issues, 73(4), 852-871.

Turner, E. A. (2019). Mental Health Among African Americans: Innovations in Research and Practice. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.