In his 1962 speech “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself,” Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Unfortunately, this statement still rings true decades later even after the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party, where efforts have been made to end the cycle of being treated as nothing more than subhuman. In response to Trayvon Martin’s death in 2013, three Black women formed a new generation of the Civil Rights Movement called the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police brutality, and seven years later, the social movement is expanding with more activists joining the fight.
Recent current events have impacted people on a global scale enough to join the Black Lives Matter movement during a massive pandemic in an effort to advocate equality, eradicate systemic racism and police brutality against Black people, and finally end the ongoing cycle of oppression and systemic racism. Such events include the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Aura Rosser, and many other Black lives that were killed by the hands of police officers within the span of nine months this year. This kind of exposure can be strenuous and traumatic, whether it is on a first or second hand basis.
With television and newspapers becoming less common as first place news sources, social media has become a very powerful tool that serves as both a blessing and curse for this generation. Under huge platforms –– such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and many others –– there are countless videos of Black people being lynched by the hands of police for anybody to view. This kind of exposure alone can be traumatizing to anyone, which in turn can develop into something known as secondary trauma.
Secondary trauma is defined as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another” (Peterson, 2018). For every time a Black person encounters a video of another Black person being harassed or killed by a police officer, it can increase their paranoia about falling under the same fate of being lynched by law enforcement and becoming the next dead body that ends up “going viral.”
The fact that Breonna Taylor’s murderers still roam free with little to no consequence is not only a testament to how the system has little value for Black women. It is also one of the many examples of Black women being actively disrespected by the media, society, and in their own communities. These intersectional experiences can accumulate and Black women may begin to reflect on their own mortality and develop stress due to exposure to both direct and indirect traumatic experiences.
Northwestern University professor of psychiatry and licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler suggests that vicarious or secondary trauma can manifest into emotions such as anger and emotional fatigue. Zeigler went on to say, “That event of hearing that news and watching the circumstances unfold over the past several months can be experienced as traumatic to people in general, but particularly as Black women who might see themselves and relate to Breonna Taylor” (Holmes, 2020).
Furthermore, Black women’s intersectional experiences impact their mental wellness. For centuries, they had to bear the burden of actively being silenced, dismissed, and negated; thrusted into cultural assimilation after being discouraged from wearing their natural hair; and labeled as nothing more than angry and irrational women for expressing themselves. This becomes intersectional experiences that are unique to Black women which can manifest into stress and trauma. According to a study conducted by several scholars, “African American women are at a greater risk for exposure to multiple traumatic events and are less likely to seek mental health services than White women” (Stevens-Watkins et al., 2014). Black women do not seek mental health services for several reasons. Earlise C. Ward and other scholars used the Common Sense Model (CSM) to measure coping strategies, barriers to treatment seeking, and belief systems. One of the main factors that prevent Black women from seeking mental health counseling are “poor access to care, stigma, and lack of awareness of mental illness” (Ward et al. 2010).
As demonstrated in the Black Lives Matter movement, Black women have also been known to be on the forefront of protecting and advocating Black men, but who is protecting Black women? How are we able to advocate for Black women’s mental health and understand their intersectionality? Attending protests and rallies and holding a banner that says Black Lives Matter simply isn’t enough. Actively listening to Black womens’ stories by attending rallies and joining organizations that pertain to activism and social issues can make people become more aware of various social issues.
Secondary trauma is just as impactful as direct trauma such as PTSD, ASD, and other stressor related disorders and should be taken as seriously as Black women’s struggles. Despite socioeconomic, cultural, and emotional barriers, there is an awareness growing for Black women’s mental health. There is more scholarly research being conducted to understand intersectionality, and establishments such as Therapy For Black Girls provide resources people can use.
Even though great strides are being made to address systemic racism and Black mental health, we still have a lot to learn. Staying informed about current events is beneficial. However, there is coverage that can be deemed as harmful for somebody’s mental health. Some suggestions to cope with secondary trauma or exacerbating pre-existing secondary trauma is taking a break from social media or going for a jog, walk, or bike ride. If the weather isn’t looking too pleasant, you can seize the opportunity to meditate or catch up on reading. Recharging your mental wellness before delving back into these issues is acceptable, and you’ll be able to do more good with a balanced self.
Holmes, E. (2020, September 25). Breonna Taylor decision triggers trauma for Black community, other victims of police violence. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://abc7chicago.com/breonna-taylor-decision-police-shooting-violence/6546769/
Peterson, S. (2018, October 22). Secondary Traumatic Stress. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/secondary-traumatic-stress
Stevens-Watkins, D., Sharma, S., Knighton, J., Oser, C., & Leukefeld, C. (2014, July). Examining Cultural Correlates of Active Coping Among African American Female Trauma Survivors. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4149226/
Ward, E., Clark, L., & Heidrich, S. (2009, November). African American Women’s beliefs, coping behaviors, and barriers to seeking mental health services. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854663/
X, M., & Haley, A. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press.