George Floyd’s death is a traumatic experience for black people all across America and the world. But it’s retraumatizing, too, because black people deal with racism every day in big and seemingly small ways. We asked community organizers how that manifests itself in their daily lives and in the work that they do.
“So many people don’t want you to win. It really is so upsetting. I really hate it,” says youth organizer Emily Wilson. She’s been part of 482Forward, a group fighting for educational justice in Detroit, since she was in eighth grade.
Naomi Wilson (no relation to Emily Wilson) is an activist scholar who works with Emily and the youth collective. She’s been a community organizer for 10 years.
“This moment is reminding me of at the height of my activism in college, how much I was depressed. And I never talked about it,” she says. “I find myself saying yes to everything. And I’m basically just burning myself out.”
“I am very, very self-critical. I usually feel like I’m not doing enough,” says Emily Wilson.
Naomi Wilson and Emily Wilson deal with structural racism head-on on a daily basis as social justice advocates. But black people have to deal with racism every day: people crossing the street when they see you coming, people wanting to touch your hair in the office, or being stereotyped as the Black History Month ambassador because you’re the only black student in your class.
“It is exhausting. And that takes just a little bit out of us each and every day. And we might not characterize that as trauma per se, but it is something that psychologically is very taxing at best,” says Rheeda Walker the author of “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health.”
We asked her and DeAnna Harris-McKoy, a licensed therapist and professor, for five helpful tips on how to cope when all these instances of racism add up.
Jump ahead to the noted time stamp if you want to go straight to one of these tips.
“I think it’s helpful to know what your body feels like when it is calm,” says Harris-McKoy. “If you’re engaging in your familiar coping skill but you’re still feeling exhausted, if you potentially still have some negative thoughts — realizing that, ’Okay, so this coping skill is not working in this context, which means I may have to pivot.’”
“We ’should’ on ourselves so much. ’I should be out there protesting. I should be able to contribute in some meaningful way to this specific organization,’” says Walker. “And we put all of this pressure on ourselves, and it just makes us feel worse. Maybe if you could just take some time, and you’ll feel even better about your contribution tomorrow.”
“You’re allowed to take a break. You’re allowed to rest. You’re allowed to recharge,” says Harris-McKoy. “Because it’s not going to end right now. We’re probably going to do this for the rest of our lifetimes.”
Walker says that our thoughts are much more powerful than we realize. “So if we say something like, ‘I can’t get through another day of this.’ Then guess what? It’s going to be really hard to get through another day.”
She says a substitute could be: “I can get through another hour.”
“Then, we can problem-solve a little bit better. ‘What do I need to do to get through another hour?’”
“I stand on, you can’t do anything without community,” says Naomi Wilson. “I call them my soul friends. Just the community who holds you accountable, who both lays your edges and snatches your edges at the same time.”
“African people were brought to the U.S. as enslaved people. There is this incredible resilience of having overcome considerable trauma,” says Walker.
“People who come to be great, impressive people in our society — they've overcome something. When you see someone overcome and they find their gifts and their talents and their strengths, it is that much more meaningful.”
“The New Normal” is a series from The Lily and The Washington Post that talks about how to adjust to our new way of life, hosted by Nicole Ellis.