America has long been polarized by systemic and cultural racism, since being built on a foundation of slavery and racial injustice. In the centuries that followed America’s origin, great movements, activists and leaders for civil rights have brought the country closer to equality – but the U.S. is still a very long way from being an accepting and racially equal place.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to the country’s social unrest by shining a spotlight on the systemic and social racism still rampant in the US.
According to an article in U.S. News by Joseph P. Williams, “African Americans were twice as likely to become infected with the virus, and die from COVID-19, than whites – evidence, experts say, of longstanding racial, economic and health disparities, hidden in plain sight.”
A deeply paranoid and race-based shifting of blame was turned towards Asian Americans, who faced ruthless discrimination and violent attacks.
“An elderly Thai immigrant dies after being shoved to the ground. A Filipino-American is slashed in the face with a box cutter. A Chinese woman is slapped and then set on fire. Eight people are killed in a shooting rampage across three Asian spas in one night. These are just examples of recent violent attacks on Asian Americans, part of a surge in abuse since the start of the pandemic a year ago. From being spat on and verbally harassed to incidents of physical assault, there have been thousands of reported cases in recent months,” writes Sam Cabral for the BBC.
In May 2020, the already festering racial tension was ignited by the murder of African American George Floyd, when a video of a white police officer kneeling on his neck until he died went viral.
Dareece Shaw, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, has observed an increase in clients seeking her services to deal with their personal experiences and feelings revolving around the racial injustice they’ve encountered. She attributes this rise partially to the widespread outrage felt by the black community, fueled by Floyd’s death.
“Although this type of behavior is not new to our country, it was one of the most volatile and traumatic instances of police brutality against a black person witnessed by many people today. The protests and court case that resulted are evidence of that. Although the black clients I see in my office know what risks we face by simply being black in America, this situation and other similar ones seems to have been a huge trigger to the fear and outrage my clients express in their sessions,” Shaw explains.
In her sessions with these clients, Shaw begins treatment by acknowledging and validating their feelings and experiences.
“Because I’m black myself, I’m able to do that in an authentic way that resonates with my client. Just the knowledge of our shared ethnic background gives a sense of relief and safety along with the experiences we can both relate to,” says Shaw, who offers in-office or over the phone counseling at Family & Child Development based in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.
In her sessions, Shaw provides psycho-education on trauma, focusing on how it affects both body and mind. Then comes identification and expression of specific feelings and the relaxation skills used to process them.
Shaw incorporates behavioral based concepts, which highlight how our unhelpful thoughts can negatively impact trauma reactions. Clients are encouraged to practice these skills and integrate them into their lives to improve their daily functioning. “It’s a long-term process that will continue for the client long after they’ve completed therapy and may even bring them back to therapy at times in the future, but it’s also rewarding to see people obtaining freedom from the historical demons these traumatic events create in their lives,” says Shaw.
In addition to encountering discrimination in their daily lives, people of color also face structural barriers that are unique to minorities. They have to work harder than their white counterparts in the school system, in their careers, in the legal system and in everyday transactions. According to Jessica Fulton, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “We have to be careful not to equate the success of individual people of color with the elimination of structural barriers.”
Kyle T. Mays, assistant professor in African American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles agrees, “From prison rates to segregation to wealth disparities to educational inequality, the numbers show that (African Americans) continue to suffer disproportionately across most social metrics.”
Further emotional and mental discomfort is experienced by people of color who live in an area densely populated with non-minorities. To feel safer and less isolated, Shaw recommends staying connected with your culture, no matter how far removed from it you may be. She encourages people to lean on their support systems, such as spouses/partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, and fellow church or community members.
“Also focusing free time and entertainment on relatable cultural content is helpful such as watching shows, movies, and even reading material that mirrors people who may look like or live like the person in question,” says Shaw.
It’s important to be self-aware of your own mental health, and to seek help when needed.
The signs of trauma/PTSD/mental health issues differ depending on the individual, but often include physical anxiety symptoms that are directly related to a trigger.
“A trigger is an event that indirectly or directly reminds someone of the trauma they went through. And the anxiety symptoms can range from heart palpitations, muscle tension, shortness of breath, insomnia, full blown panic attacks, flashbacks to the incident, and similar behaviors. Usually, the person my notice problems in their personal or professional life, like not being able to maintain relationships or struggling with them. Or not being able to attend work or keep a job. Ideally a person wouldn’t wait until the more problematic symptoms occur, but if they’ve been through something traumatic and are experiencing any symptoms listed, they should absolutely consider seeking therapy to address their PTSD,” says Shaw.
Shaw also expresses the importance of the white community being allies to fight racial injustice in America. She hopes the white community will strive to be more open to discussing the issue of racial injustice, and not shy away from the topic because of discomfort, which might sometimes be a default reaction. “Taking the things they learn to their own family and friends to continue the conversation would be a great start to help further the racial injustice cause,” says Shaw.
As we look to the road ahead, there are ways for progressing generations to facilitate systemic change for future equality.
Shaw says, “I think that using our voting political power and selecting the right candidates who will make those important decisions and care about what needs to be done is extremely important in this effort. I think that using our voices to speak our truth and not shy away from the difficult talks will move us in the right direction. But even if it happens many generations in the future and even beyond our lifetimes, there is still hope for change.”
If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dareece Shaw, or anyone at Family & Child Development, please reach out to us at 850-862-3772. You can check out Ms. Shaw’s personal statement by clicking here.