You know the feeling you get when there’s a scream or cry stuck in the back of your throat? That’s probably how many of us have felt as we collectively grieve over Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Muhlaysia Booker, and most recently George Floyd and Tony McDade. The thing about being Black is that you can’t wholeheartedly ignore what’s happening to people who are being affected in your community. There is a shared pain going around because we know that deep down these atrocities have either happened or could happen to someone close to us. Someone we love. This constant worry for many Black people steals glimpses of joy and possibilities from our lives because we have to stay on guard while fighting to change a system and culture that isn’t fully ready to be changed for the better.
A few years ago I made a promise to only expose myself to descriptive details of Black deaths if I felt prepared to. As a public health professional I know that stress can deteriorate the body and mind, and that’s not what I want for myself or anyone else. But what I’ve come to realize is that there’s no such thing as perfectly preparing yourself to grieve over someone who has been ruthlessly and senselessly killed. While there is a sense of apathy that forms when we continue to see videos of Black people dying, these stories still create new wounds and open up ones that have barely healed. You can’t help but to ask: How long must we continue to share videos and pictures of dead bodies, march on the streets, or fight to change policies and ultimately people before we’re considered humans? Growing up my mom used to tell me that you can’t change people and I believe it. If we could, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. She also taught me the importance of recognizing what I have control over and trying my best, even when it’s hard to do so.
People usually ask me how I’m able to discuss such heavy topics and also express joy. My response is always: how can I not? To be fair, most of my work revolves around having honest conversations about inequitable structures, systems of oppressions, and ways to change behaviors and policies. I don’t necessarily experience all of the explicit hardships that result from classism, racism, or sexism like many people do in the Black community. However, I’m still Black and still grieve for us and with us. I also believe in challenging myself and others around me to do better because I know that our freedom is intricately linked with the people who’ve died, and with those who continue to be treated unjustly. So my response to choose joy is not because I don’t believe in the importance of grieving, but because I know that the fight for justice is a long one. I can’t wait for people to finally accept my Blackness or prove to people that I am worthy of love, life, and joy if they’ve chosen to believe otherwise. I also believe that every Black person deserves to know what it feels like to have peace and joy, not just pain and sorrow. Being at peace or choosing joy doesn’t mean that there won’t be chaos or misery, or that what is happening is okay. It means that we are intentionally choosing to live even when our lives are threatened and we don’t have control over how people treat us. As we continue to go through the motions, here are some offerings of peace:
Pay attention to your body
As a facilitator who brings people together to talk about issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc., I know that people react differently to content based on their own personal experiences. When we experience stress one result is that our bodies become tense, which can impact our overall long-term health. We don’t have to automatically rush our emotions to move from sadness to happiness, but it can be helpful to sit with our emotions and identify how they’re making us feel as we work towards inner peace. Pay attention to how your body feels and find ways to release tension so you don’t have to carry that heaviness with you for too long. Here is a toolkit I’ve found helpful over the years that helps me recognize signs of stress and how to work towards releasing tension.
Recognize that you belong here
Historically and presently, people have worked their hardest to show that we are not humans and don’t deserve to be treated with respect and compassion as a result. Unfortunately, some of us have come to believe this as well and may find ourselves questioning the specifics of each killing to justify whether or not someone deserves to suffer or die. I’m here to tell you that we don’t need to prove to anyone why we deserve to live, regardless of the specifics of any situation.The feeling of worthiness is internal and not external and therefore we only need to seek validation from ourselves. To that end, begin to think about how you’ve internalized language, thoughts, and behaviors that perpetuate internalized racism. What narratives have you accepted that may suggest that you or other people in the Black community aren’t worthy or deserving of life, love, and compassion? Take a moment to write those down whenever it shows up and think of ways to unlearn the narratives that do not support you. Here is a list of resources from Racial Equity Tools that includes practices, research, and concepts that may help us combat these narratives.
Find your people and name what you need
It’s been a bit hard for me to concentrate on many things these days, especially work-related tasks. My hope for you is that you feel comfortable reaching out to your colleagues, supervisors, family, and friends to let them know what you need at this moment. While we’re all not in the position to take a mental health day off of work for example, we might want to ask to switch gears or focus our attention on something else, create space to have these conversations with one another, ask people to not share the videos of recent killings, or anything else that may be supportive to our emotional and mental well-being. Sometimes we just want to talk about issues facing the Black community with other Black people, our closest friends, or an online community finding ways to heal. Other times we want to be left alone as we read, meditate, eat comforting food, or do absolutely nothing. Whoever or whatever it is, be sure that it supports your overall wellness.
Do what you can in the name of justice
Wherever you are in your journey, there is always something each of us can do to move towards justice. This can range from increasing our own awareness about injustices, to working towards policy change in the local, state and federal government. Find ways to be part of community organizing, host informational and action-oriented virtual events, sign and share a petition that will create a positive change, support those who are on the ground doing grassroots work, or donate to an organization working to keep Black communities viable.
Experience moments of joy and inner peace
In many ways peace and joy are forms of resistance for Black people, specifically as it relates to our response to recent events. When there is no regard for a certain group’s life, it feels like there is intention to take away joy from the person being killed, and ultimately their family and community. When we choose to still live and appreciate our existence, we are doing the exact opposite from what people expect. We don’t have to be happy all of the time but we also don’t deserve to be in rage every moment. As you think about what joy or inner peace might look like for you, take a moment and think of the people in your life. Who and what are you grateful for? What are some activities you enjoy doing? Can you take part in one or all of those practices? Perhaps there are people in your life who contribute to your well-being and help keep you afloat. Maybe there’s something you can say or do to express your appreciation. Every moment we have is a choice for us to interpret our circumstances, decide how we want to be in the moment, and how we want to move forward. Figure out what that pathway looks like for you and fearlessly lean into it because if anything, you deserve it.