We Are Not Well: The Affects Of Stress, Racism, And Depression
In spite of evidence that links recurrent high-stress levels as a cause for depression, an egregious and pervasive white lie persists that blackness enables one to be emotionally impervious to the stress produced by racial terrorism. When African-Americans experience psychological trauma due to the stress of racism, factors such as racial violence, discrimination, and microaggressions may be ignored as contributors to depression. However, there is no doubt that racial bias is a major stressor for African Americans (as illustrated by the recent murder of a black man by a white supremacist, who traveled to New York specifically to kill black men).
Moreover, evidence suggests that long-term negative health outcomes are associated with prolonged stress that genetically impact individual gene expression. In a University of Gothenburg study, Swedish geneticist and endocrinologist, Camilla A. M. Glad, noted that “….we are talking about changes in DNA that have the potential to persist for the remainder of the patient's life, and which can also be hereditary….". Essentially, glucocorticoids are a group of steroid hormones that have a range of effects, one of which is to regulate the body’s stress response. “Fight or flight”, the adrenal gland response to stress or fear, temporarily elevates blood pressure and increases alertness to ready the body for action should a perceived threat present itself. However, when stress or a perceived threat has subsided, the stress response should release and assist in returning the body to homeostasis. The body’s stress response mechanism is meant for intermittent bursts of adrenal response and not sustained activity. However, when the body’s stress response system malfunctions the “stress hormone” cortisol is over produced, which specifically has been linked to occurrences of depression.
Similarly, my experience with depression was directly influenced by the stress and anxiety of living an American life while in a black body. There was a weight pulling me deeper into extended periods of grief. Like waves, the intervals between stillness and the impact of tears became shorter. These feelings, initially sparse, grew into a deep depression that seemed oddly familiar. Throughout my childhood I’d witnessed it, that detached sadness, sitting behind my grandmother’s eyes, and behind the eyes of many black women I’d known. In fact, recent discoveries by neurobiologist, Michael Meany, and geneticist, Moshe Szyf, strongly indicate that epigenetic change can be transferred through generations instead of only during the fetal period of human development as once thought. Their hypothesis suggests that it’s possible for ancestral trauma to leave an indelible molecular imprint on DNA. This is the DNA of generations who were subjugated to a new form of slavery that legally counted them as “Three-Fifths” of a person for political compromise. Moreover, children born of slave women legally would inherit a life long debt that would be their birthright — slavery. Science tells us this is the DNA of suffering, transferred from one hand to another spreading out and forming family trees.
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I inherited much from my southern grandmother. She was a difficult woman. She had endured the dangers of a culture that designated black women’s bodies as service vessels and not as human. As a result, she learned to appear callous to mask her fear and heartbreak. My grandmother never minced words when she recalled the racism she experienced during her formative years. The world, as she described it, seemed beyond daunting. It was a mess of repressive networks that essentially conspired to relieve you of your sense of cultural identity, sanity, and love. She’d say the world was hard, harder for colored folks, and hardest for the colored woman. However, my child’s mind couldn’t contend with believing my grandmother. She simply didn’t understand the world had changed because how else could I survive it, if it had not? Like many black children, I was told of the impending racism awaiting me in the world. Many of us are instructed to be resilient, dignified, and above all, strong. However, we are not taught that the assessment of our strength shouldn’t rest on a steely capacity to endure racism without emotional fallout. We often lack the resources necessary to help us emotionally process the complexities of racism. Often black women are specifically vulnerable to the intricacies of racial bigotry, as they encounter an intersection that includes not only racism but also sexism.
Misogynoir, a term coined by Northeastern University Professor Moya Bailey, is used to describe how black women experience multiple degrees of oppression expressed in the form of misogyny, racism and anti-blackness. My body displayed a great lack of assimilation to white, patriarchal values. Therefore, I made many people very uncomfortable. However, at times when white women nervously attempted to cloak their discomfort with me for nothing more than the fear that I was Africanized and aggressive, I needed to believe their reactions weren’t explicitly racist. Far better to assume that the world was full of anxious people than to acknowledge I was experiencing a brand of racism that felt customized for my perceived femininity. These moments of misogynoir were often experienced under mundane circumstances. For instance, such as going to a mechanic who doesn’t examine your car, calls you “baby”, and assumes you can’t afford the repair, so he literally shows you out of the door with his hand too close to your rear, or being followed by security while shopping, or being told you need more than an I.D. to enter a bar. The previous examples may seem like microaggressions in comparison to having your hair toyed with by a stranger who wants to know “….how do you wash these things”, or “….you never wash these things, right”? As rage and embarrassment both collude to have you design a string of obscenities so vile that Richard Pryor would’ve been impressed, you decide to suppress your anger. You realize you’re all alone and in deep cotton, so you deflect the toxicity of the entire encounter. Because under the conceptual measures of whiteness, black animus or fatigue in response to racism isn’t permitted.
Moreover, the preferred response to racism in America is silence, which is another stress inducing function of white supremacy that attempts to direct the conversation about how racism should be interpreted. Tactically this is an attempt to mute the outrage African Americans express about racism. Seemingly, this is accomplished by persuading black people to interpret racist acts as opportunities to display moral superiority, as if that were a just exchange for dehumanization. This oppressive maneuver creates a social pathology that requires black people to endlessly perform a fictitious black excellence, one in which they must “be the bigger man”. The performance of this black excellence syndrome necessitates that African Americans carry out acts of altruism for the comfort and benefit of conceptual whiteness, which consequently quiets black protest. For instance, a recent situation involved barely managing not to loose patience while I waited to be seated at a restaurant after two white couples, who were behind me, had been seated before me. Should I have simply pointed out the microaggression, and have my actions misread as overly aggressive because I’m a black woman, or do I remain silent for reasons of simple exhaustion and fear of spectacle? So often black people are called upon to perform these acts as a gauge of their strength, but the ability to undergo racism without emotional reaction is a racist objective. I was tired of performing, tired of swallowing the anger and heartbreak of consistently having to plead with the world to acknowledge that I was human. As my grandmother would say, the world had “run me low”, so I drifted away from it.
After six months of struggling through a major depression induced in part by the unspoken spaces of bias, I came up for air. Through a process of melancholy resistance, I was able to gather my fragmented thoughts into a narrative I understood. I was kind to myself, disciplined my rage, acquired tools of self love, pondered on old images, handed my despair to Solange in exchange for joy, discovered dead writers, soaked in oils and herbs, and enjoyed black kinship in an effort to return to life. Depression isn’t a sitcom that offers a tidy ending to the myriad of complex issues that influenced its onset. I found that my depression wasn’t a result of a weakness in character, but a logical response to the intrinsic social dysfunction of anti-black racism. Blackness isn’t quantified by survival of endured adversity, nor is it a cornucopia of suffering for colonial use; it’s celestial and immeasurable in its expression. Although I would never acquire an affirmative resolve to the psychological damage racism causes, I reconciled that truth by affirming and uplifting a politically maverick love — a black love. Lending faith to this sentiment, Frantz Fanon was captured in thought as a daily mantra, “I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.”