A Window into the Current Emotional & Mental Space of Black America: Through the Lens of a Black Therapist

By Rukudzo Honour Sithole MA.LPC-S

The week of June 1st 2020 was the first time I sat down in my Counseling office as a black man and not in the role of therapist. A rush of emotions was unfolding in me at the same rate the protests were spreading around the United States and around the world. It became apparent that I, had never sat down and explored how I felt as a black man when tragic events such as the death of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Alton Spears, Philando Castillo, Breanna Taylor and Sandra Bland to name a few. Most of these events have been met by the normal outrage for a week, reports from various news outlets and opinions from warring sides. Seemingly, life goes back to normal with no real resolution or assessment of the mental, emotional and spiritual impact the event had on the black community and the country at large.

The death of George Floyd is different. It seems to be the tipping point in the quest for justice. Every client I met with, in my racially diverse clientele wanted to explore their feelings and thoughts about this event. An understanding of the plight of black people seems to have surfaced across America and the world at large.

As a therapist, I started to wonder, what black people are looking for at this moment, where we have the world’s attention?

1) Acknowledgement and validation of their experience

Black people have carried emotional pain passed down from our ancestors to the present day. There has not been an opportunity for us to explore or validate this pain caused by slavery, police brutality and systemic injustices. Survival has been the main goal. Each attempt to make progress has been met with systemic resistance and ill-informed differing opinions that have been focused on maintaining the status quo. Our pain is engrained at cellular level and is etched in a repeatedly traumatized mind marred with PTSD from all the trauma that we experienced or witnessed and was never acknowledged. To our detriment, we have learnt to continuously cope with ongoing violations without justice which has had an adverse reaction on our physical, emotional and mental health.

I grew up during apartheid in South Africa and I realized I had never explored how I felt about what I witnessed as a child and how it impacted me. My experiences in America as a black man further traumatized my anxiety riddled mind. However, in this moment, black people feel as if we have an opportunity to explore and vocalize our emotions, because the system that is the perpetrator in our eyes was listening for a change and is willing to accept its contribution to the unfavorable experiences of black people in America. Like myself, most of my clients are looking for acknowledgement and validation of their feelings and room to express how they truly feel.

2) We are looking to Identify and Explore our Emotions

Most of my therapy sessions this week with black people were a venting session. No immediate resolutions were required. We just explored the emotions and thoughts that were arising within. Clients felt as if they could let their guards down and go beyond the emotional veil that has prevented them from seeing what lies beneath the surface. We are seeing this as an opportunity to understand the emotional impact of the past 400 years of racial and systemic oppression. We have been trained to be strong and have had to carry pain and frustration with no expiration date in near sight. Finally, we get an opportunity to explore the pain and give the emotions we have harbored a name and start processing them. This phase reminds me of the process of grief, where there are different stages to the healing process. Healing will come with time as we identify our emotions and process them. The common emotions are, fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, hurt, hopelessness, powerlessness and disappointment.

In this space we need to sit in our emotions for a while and understand them and gradually move towards healing.

3) Ways to contribute to the collective movement and use our voice

The common question that is consistently arising amongst black people is, how can I contribute to this movement and use my voice, or platform to effect change? As a collective, we are looking to play our part to keep the momentum going until we realize systemic change through legislation that addresses our concerns. We are also on a quest for personal empowerment and seeking restoration of a voice that was suppressed for 400 years. Each one of us can find our niche and contribute effectively. The musicians need to express themselves through song, writers need to blog, teachers need to educate, lawyers need to help navigate the law, those that can show up on the frontlines to protests should do so and those that can donate financially should donate. As a therapist, I have made a commitment to offer my services and a safe place for individuals to process their emotions as they define and adjust to the new normal.

4 )A listening ear and empathy

To those that are wondering how to support their black friend or family member during this moment, all we require is a listening ear and empathy. It is not time to debate different perspectives. The wound that has been infected for many years has now been exposed and we have summoned enough courage to discuss the emotional pain that has festered for centuries. Empathy is what is required to initiate the move towards the process of healing. Other races may not have firsthand experience of being black or understand how it feels, but we all know what it is to be human. When a mother loses a child over trivial situations such as jogging in a neighborhood, any mother should be able to place herself in Ahmaud Arberys mothers’ shoes through imagining how it would feel to lose their child.When a child loses a father over suspected use of a fake $20 bill, and is killed on camera, any human should be able to place themselves in the shoes of George Floyds daughter who will grow up without her father. Pain and loss are a universal experience that we should all be able to relate to. We may not understand how it feels to be that person going through the experience but we all understand the sting of death. Empathy is fully realized when we dig into our humanity and remove the human barriers that have minimized other humans so that discrimination can be palatable.

5) Support and true systemic change

Seeking an understanding from a humanistic perspective and educating oneself on the injustices and inequalities faced by black people will help garner support for systemic changes that will ensure equality. I am impressed to see businesses across the country issue encouraging statements condemning injustice and police brutality. Other government and civic leaders are finding ways to implement laws that will address the systemic loopholes that have historically worked against black people. Other races can offer their support through using their various platforms and lending their voice to the chorus against injustice. If you are a blogger, blog, if you are a journalist report accurate information and use that platform for good. Above all, we have the right to exercise our vote, let us vote for leaders and officials that have agendas and policies that will empower humanity and create an equitable environment and not place economics over humanity.

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