As a black woman and public health researcher living and working in Boston, I see firsthand how segregation impacts the health outcomes of black and brown people compared to their white counterparts. Working in this field, I have had to build support systems and defense mechanisms that allow me to study, raise awareness about and address health inequities without being crushed by their weight and magnitude.
Little did I know that a global pandemic and the persistent police brutality experienced by black people would wear those mechanisms down, isolate me from supportive communities and make way for a wave of grief I was woefully unprepared for.
On Memorial Day weekend, the New York Times’s front page listed 100,000 names of those who died from covid-19. Of the deceased, more than 20 percent were black. Shortly thereafter, news broke about the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Floyd’s last words: “Please,” and “I can’t breathe.”
Alongside many other black people in America, I fell into a collective grief.
We grieve the excess death toll faced by black Americans due to structural racism. We grieve George Floyd, killed outside a grocery store. We grieve Breonna Taylor, an EMT killed in her home. We grieve Ahmaud Arbery, killed while out jogging. We grieve Tony McDade, a black trans man who was brutally gunned down.
We grieve the constant threats black people face. We grieve our lack of safety at home, on the road, at the grocery store, in school and in the park. We grieve for victims we do not know. We grieve for each other and the fear and stress we constantly carry. We grieve for the black mothers who die in childbirth, for the low-birth-weight black babies who carry the effects of our intergenerational suffering. We grieve our collective trauma.
While I felt this pain and grief, I struggled with taking ownership of it. Was my grief real? Since I didn’t personally know any of the victims, was I allowed to claim this grief as my own? Was I allowed to take a day off to mourn their deaths and process the systemic racism that caused them?
The dismissal of black pain dates back to slavery and is ingrained in all aspects of society. Black patients are given less pain relief than their white counterparts. Outspoken black women are labeled as troublemakers. We’re unable to freely emote because of the strong black woman stereotype. To overcome these stereotypes, we must reinforce our experiences and feelings with data and facts. We need to validate our existence, basic needs, desires and actions.
With these thoughts in mind, and fearful my grief would be dismissed, I did what any good public health researcher would do: I found data to justify it.
Black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population but we make up 24 percent of people killed by police, according to Mapping Police Violence. A 2018 study notes that police kill more than 300 black Americans each year, and that at least a quarter are not armed. The study showed that these police killings had significant poor effects on the mental health of all black Americans. Researchers found each incident contributed 0.14 additional poor mental health days per person, amounting to an additional 55 million poor mental health days per year among black Americans. The mental health strain of police killings is comparable to the disease burden of diabetes, which affects 1 out of 5 black people in the United States. If diabetes among black Americans is considered an epidemic — and the statistics show it is — so should our grief associated with police killings.
On top of this, black people are dealing with the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on our communities. Nationally, black people are 2.3 times more likely to die from covid-19 than white people, increasing the stress of bereavement among the black population. Yolo Akili Robinson, founder of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, revealed that his organization has observed an uptick in depressive symptoms among black communities during this time of social isolation.
I now had facts to justify my feelings, scientifically “validating” my emotional pain.
Black women are faced with the double burdens of racism and sexism that result in exacerbated adverse health outcomes. In addition, we are usually subjected to the added emotional and mental strain of being a token in professional and academic settings. Despite these stressors, we are discouraged from engaging in self-care and putting ourselves first, and we may be considered selfish or lazy if we do.
Armed with the assurances of these ancestors and the data, I took full ownership of my grief, confident in my pursuit of rest. Amid twin pandemics — covid-19 and systemic racism — I, a black woman, took some time off.
I spent my five days away from the office in a virtual, black woman-led yoga teacher training. I dedicated each day to engaging in mindful movement, learning about yoga as a form of healing and learning how to increase minorities’ access to wellness spaces like that one. The time away was a welcome reprieve from the noise of the real world; I got to read Eastern philosophy and appreciate the beauty of intentional spaces of rest and nourishment for members of my community.
While not as visible as protesting in the streets demanding justice for black lives, for black women, the pursuit of rest is its own act of resistance.