On Erica Garner and Healing Racial Trauma

I felt an eerie combination of a sense of sadness and supposition when I heard that Erica Garner died after experiencing a heart attack. I had just submitted a proposal for my university’s institutional review board (IRB) for a healing racial trauma study – one that specifically looks at the effects of racism on the heart and examines whether meditation provides any healing. We know that her heart didn’t just give out. Racism broke it.

Existing research on race-based stress and racial trauma suggests that racism wears Black people down in the moment and over time from its cumulative impact. Robert Carter describes it as injury, and that word is intentional so as not to victim blame Black folks for not being resilient enough.

This young woman lost her father by murder. She then assumed the arguably most resilient position one can, becoming an activist. But the activist identity doesn’t stop racism from weathering one’s physiological and psychological health. In one main critique of the Black Lives Matter Meditation on Healing Racial Trauma, a Facebook commentator said, “we do not need to cope, we need to fight.”

I think it is both/and. We cannot do sustainable resistance work without healing.

Many people who engage in various forms of activism understand this, but have limited time to practice. As a psychologist, one who has made a career in scientist-practitioner-activism, my contribution has not been in marches and street protest. I know my constitution can’t handle it. I literally fainted at a Trayvon Martin rally in 2013. My contribution is in healing and research/writing. So today, I want to write what I know about how racism breaks the body down and what can be healing, because I want to see us alive and well.

The research says racism:

  •  increases heart rate
  • decreases heart rate variability
  • heightens hypervigilance
  • increases depressive symptoms, like sadness, irritability, and hopelessness
  • increases anxious symptoms, like worry and preoccupation
  • disrupts/reduces concentration
  • creates somatic symptoms (or undiagnosable pain in your body)

The research also says:

  • social support can be healing
  • physical movement/exercise can be healing
  • consensual touch can be healing
  • music and other artistic expression can be healing
  • therapy (the culturally competent kind) can be healing
  • spiritual practices can be healing

And, although I have heard good things about meditation’s impact on the after effects of racism, and I personally find it healing, I am researching it to find out if there is truth to that hypothesis that can be generalized and shared.

Black Lives Matter has a Healing Justice Toolkit. This is another set of strategies for the regular and consistent healing work we must do to survive and thrive. I hope their resources help and heal as many people as possible.

Additionally, my team is developing a center where the entire focus is on healing racial trauma for any racially/ethnically marginalized people, with a focus on both prevention and intervention. We know that even folks who are not engaged in activist work experience racism and the psychological toll it takes, all too often without a place to process it. Trained professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, and other healers) need to use our professional privilege to prevent the beautiful, valuable Erica Garner’s of the world from having racism break their hearts. We can do more.

, by : Dr. Candice Nicole

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