Most people of African descent do not come to psychotherapists seeking help solely with emotional or psychological problems that arise when they have encountered problems with racial “oppression” . They generally come to therapy because of pain and discomfort in other areas of their lives that they are unable to heal on their own. Yet, encounters with racial oppression are embedded in their life stories, memories and everyday experiences. Therapy is not truly complete and often not as effective without also acknowledging and addressing the ways in which racial oppression has and is affecting relationships, emotional problems, addictions and other life challenges.
People who internalize racial oppression do so unconsciously. Messages, images, values and experiences arising from interaction with the dominant culture, penetrate and impact the individual’s internally held sense of self . In African-American fiction, this process has been minutely examined by authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and others.
Ellison’s main character, at the end of ‘Invisible Man ‘ said:
The fact is, that you carry part of your sickness within you, at least I do as an invisible man. I carried my sickness, and thought for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me. It came upon me slowly, like that strange disease that affects those black men whom you see turning slowly from black to albino, their pigment disappearing as under the radiation of some cruel, invisible ray…. though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility… But deep down you come to suspect that you’ve yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who look through you unseeingly. That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with the guts spilling out, the trip to the chamber wit the deadly gas that ends in the oven so hygienically clean—only it’s worse because you continue stupidly to life, But live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go on to the next conflict. Yes, but what is the next phase?.
Ellison, in this passage illustrates the dillemma of realizing that one has been wounded by externally imposed processes, and part of the ironic nature of that pain is that it is a buried, invisible wounding. Another component of that pain is that he has no idea what to do with it, certainly not how to heal it.
Racist messages, images, values and experiences may also impact the ethnic culture of the family. Racist information, acts, institutions affect and impact and are filtered by each idiosyncratic mini-culture of the family of origin in which individuals are raised. Individual family members sort, censor, deny, ignore, rage against or otherwise react to these assaults, in attempts to interpret, defend, assimilate or deflect. Young people are sometimes guided by their elders in how to handle these assaults. Sometimes they are left alone to handle these situations themselves with no guidance. .Finally, that information is filtered, analyzed and taken in to the personality and influence the character of the individual, and the choices he or she makes when encountering racism in the future. The acknowledgement of the existence of racism, or the internalization of defenses against racist oppression are not usually experienced as a handicap. It is experienced more often as normal rather than abnormal. When it is seen as normal, it causes no particular problems or discomfort, and if this world view and defenses are consistent with how an individual sees himself, the internalization is considered “ego-syntonic” or consistent with the healthy survival of self.
If an individual’s acknowledgement of racism or his learned internalization of defenses against racial oppression conflicts with self image; his relationships with loved ones; or members of his own ethnic group; the result can be problematic. These conflicts are often indicative of potential ethnic identity issues.Such ethnic identity issues can complicate relationships that are already challenging or difficult. The sense of self, (which is simply the way an individual experiences his own character or personality) may be affected in key areas:
KEY AREAS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL WOUNDING UNDER RACIAL OPPRESSION
A new Cornell study shows how and to what extent racial discrimination affects the mental health of African-Americans. There are two mechanisms that result in measurable effects on the mental health of many black people.
1) The chronic exposure to racial discrimination leads to more perceived experiences of racial discrimination
2) An accumulation of daily negative events affects daily life in all spheres including family life, friendships, financial matters and of course, health.
This combination leads to an increased risk for symptoms of depression, anxiety and “negative moods”
In my practice the key areas of psychological wounding in a person who has experienced racism seem to appear in the following areas:
• The way in which the person thinks, feels , or acts toward himself
• The way in which the person thinks, feels or acts toward people who look like him or belong to his ethnic group (internalized oppression)
• The way in which the person thinks, feels or acts about people whom he experiences as racially oppressive.
• The way in which the person thinks, feels or acts towards others who are not in his group or the group of the oppressor.
• Exacerbation of stress related illnesses