Becoming Part of the Solution

Rectifying being part of the oppressive majority.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

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Like many of us, I was disgusted and outraged that another unarmed person of color was killed in broad daylight. And like most Americans, as a white man, I have the privilege to not have to think about race when it is not convenient.

This was first painfully made clear to me more than a decade ago, when I made an ill-advised decision to cover my face in dark brown paint on Halloween, trying to complete my Martin Sheen/Capt. Willard Apocalypse Now[1] costume, only to have my ignorance rightfully pointed out by a friend. The burden of the guilt and shame I felt at that moment, as I quickly rushed to wash it off, still is not comparable to bearing the weight of being a person of color in America.

Recognizing that people of color are murdered daily is far more important than keeping Whites comfortable. I can empathize and feel outraged that this is the reality in America, but I have not experienced the fear or pain or abuse that people of color experience daily. My awareness does not translate to others’ lived experience.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the “White Moderate" who "prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."[2] How many bodies of black and brown men and women who are harassed and harmed for bird-watching, or jogging, or watching TV, or swimming with socks on, or barbecuing, or simply living while being black, is enough for us to recognize the injustice and take a stand? There’s a saying that the only time you should look in your neighbor's bowl is to see if they have enough. But what if they don't have a bowl or even a seat at the table? What are we to do then?

It is clear that institutional racism has created two systems in this country. White spree killers like Dylann Roof are peacefully arrested while Blacks who are suspected of misdemeanors are killed with impunity.[3] It is also clear that society created the environment that causes so much fear that an individual calls the police on a man suggesting she obey public safety laws; so much anger that two men believe they are taking justice into their hands by hunting down an unarmed jogger; so much spite that a public servant kneels on a restrained man’s neck despite the insistence of others; and so much callous indifference that creates an official public policy that keeps thousands of brown children in cages.

As the American Public Health Association points out, racism is a “driving force of the social determinants of health (like housing, education, and employment) and is a barrier to health equity."[4] And if this pandemic has done nothing else, it has made plain how the systemic racism in America is a public health crisis.[5]

Racism is a public crisis for mental health too. For example, one of the most well-studied protocols for creating symptoms of depression uses chronic mild stressors.[6] For animals, researchers do things like keep their bedding damp and tilt their cages to create symptoms of mental illness. Similarly, for people of color, these chronic mild stressors are things like being followed in stores, dealing with coworkers and neighbors with racist views, seeing people of similar backgrounds abused and assaulted by authority figures.[7] These symptoms of a broken system predispose minorities to mental health concerns.

On an individual level, one of the simplest steps in helping redress this injustice is to educate oneself. As an ally, I have learned that no matter how much I want to problem-solve, the conversation is not about me, but rather mine to support and draw attention to. Listening to community leaders, sharing their message, and being vocal and outward with support can increase exposure to stigmatized group members and counter stereotypes which helps to counteract biases.[8] Also, naming systemic oppression quickly and directly is another step. The bystander effect — when responsibility is diffused over a large group — is known to lead to inaction.

Finally, we need to have those hard, uncomfortable conversations with our families. As new parents, my partner and I have worried about raising a child who shares our values of justice. In a recent interview, Dr. Jennifer Harvey stressed that, as White Americans, waiting to have these conversations in our families is tantamount to not having them at all.[9] Research suggests that parents’ empathy and morality affect early moral development in children,[10] and it is well known that children model parental behaviors.[11] As Gandhi said, we have to be the change we want to see in the world.

We also have the power to call for change on the systemic level as well by engaging civically. First and foremost, elections have consequences. Support and vote for candidates whose platforms call for systemic change.

Second, use your position to contact state and local officials and ask them to advocate for reform, particularly with the criminal justice system. That feedback is a part of what drives public policy. As my colleagues (Dr. Pagan, and Drs. Lewis and Upshaw) have pointed out in prior blog posts, the oppression of minorities, and in particular the Black community, is furthered by a biased criminal justice system, which serves to entrench the socioeconomic and health disparities created by more than a century of systemic and systematic racism.

Third, on a local level, contact state representatives and city officials to advocate for de-escalation training for law enforcement: It literally saves lives.[12] As does training law enforcement officers to recognize mental illness,[13] and these programs are already being implemented in cities throughout America with optimistic results.

Fourth, call on your representatives to support the efforts that are underway to eliminate the discriminatory practices of cash bail[14] and mandatory minimum sentences.[15] Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’[16] So please, do something.

By Andrew Teer, MA, on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates      

References

[1] Coppola, F.F., (1979). Apocalypse Now [Motion Picture]. United States: United Artists.

[2] King, M.L. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3] https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/

[4] APHA (2020). Racism and Health. https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/health-equity/racism-and-health

[5] Webb, Hopper, M., Nápoles A.M, & Pérez-Stable E.J. (2020). COVID-19 and Racial/Ethnic Disparities. JAMA. Published online May 11, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.8598

[6] Katz R.J. (1982). Animal model of depression: pharmacological sensitivity of a hedonic deficit. Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav.;16:965–968

[7] Utsey, S. O., & Ponterotto, J. G. (1996). Development and validation of the Index of Race-Related Stress (IRRS). Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43(4), 490–501. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.43.4.490

[8] Dasgupta, N., & Rivera, L. (2008). When social context matters: The influence of long-term contact and short-term exposure to admired outgroup members on implicit attitudes and behavioral intentions. Social Cognition, 26, 54-66.

[9] National Public Radio. 'Raising White Kids' Author On How White Parents Can Talk About Race. (March 2020). All Things Considered.

[10] Cowell,J.M, & Decety, J. (2015). Precursors to morality in development as a complex interplay between neural, socioenvironmental, and behavioral facets.  PNAS 112(41), 12657-12662; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1508832112

[11] Lipscomb, S. T., Leve, L. D., Harold, G. T., Neiderhiser, J. M., Shaw, D. S., Ge, X., & Reiss, D. (2011). Trajectories of parenting and child negative emotionality during infancy and toddlerhood: A longitudinal analysis. Child Development, 82(5), 1661-1675.

[12] Engel, R.S., McManus, H.D., & Herold, T. D. (2020). The Deafening Demand for De-escalation Training: A Systematic Review and Call for Evidence in Police Use of Force Reform. International Association of Chiefs of Police.

[13] Reuland, M. Draper, L., Norton, B. (2012). Statewide Law Enforcement/Mental Health Efforts: Strategies to Support and Sustain Local Initiatives. Bureau of Justice Assistance.

[14] https://bailproject.org/after-cash-bail/#risks              

[15] https://famm.org/

[16] King, M.L. (1957). Montgomery, AL.