“A white prospective patient enters my office, seats himself, and upon seeing the numerous educational and professional achievements, including a doctorate and two masters’ degrees hanging on my wall, asks, “Are you any good?”
-Dr. Micheal Kane, Clinical Traumatologist & Forensic Evaluator
“To be a Negro in this country and be relatively conscious is to be in rage all the time.”
-James Baldwin Writer
“You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know what to do when adversity takes over. And I have some advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you are supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It’s called mercy, mercy, mercy.”
-Cannonball Adderley “The Cannon” Jazz Musician
A true story:
I was alone in a hotel lobby in Cleveland Ohio. My husband and children had just returned to our room to retrieve something that somebody had to have before we left for my sister-in-law’s wedding.
I had gone to a lot of trouble shopping for the children and myself. My tailored emerald-green silk dress was made from fabric my husband had brought from Thailand, and my shoes were dyed to match. My nails and hair were done, and my outfit was topped off with a brand new mink jacket that my husband had worked hard to buy for me. I was sharp.
As I waited for the elevator to return my family to me, two young white men came out of the hotel bar and headed my way. When they got within earshot, one of them loudly exclaimed, “She must cost at least $100!” His companion laughed as they walked past what was left of me.
I looked at my clothes, trying for a minute to determine what was it about me that had given them the impression I looked like a hotel hooker and not simply a well-dressed wife and mother. My tears gleamed on the fur as I stood there with my head bowed.
I knew that I had to pull myself together. I knew that my husband would be furious if he heard my story and would want to confront the men who had left me feeling so devastated. My children would be upset if I was upset. Our day of celebration would be spoiled.
When the elevator finally arrived, I looked shaken, but I managed to blame it on my excitement. It wasn’t until the end of the day that I told my husband about the experience, and he was as angry as I’d anticipated.
I never wore those shoes or that dress again.
-Dr. Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, clinical psychologist and Author, Stolen Women (page 27-28)
My Dear Readers,
Dr. Wyatt, like many of us, was raised to believe in the three tenets of the Just World Theory:
- The world is benevolent
- The world is meaningful
- The self is worthy
It is these values that give rise to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It affirms the belief that the individual is capable of anything, that hard work pays off, that what goes around comes around, and that buying into the moral precepts and rules of behavior imposed by the greater society will keep the uncertainties of life at bay.
In all respects, Dr. Wyatt succeeded at all of these things, and for the most part, reaped those benefits. However, just in that short encounter at the elevator, she became a victim of a complex trauma known as Just World Trauma.
Just World Trauma occurs when the rules and guidelines put forth by the greater society for success are then violated by that very same society. The patient, in believing that they would be treated justly by the world whose rules they have been following, would be betrayed—not by a particular individual, but by all of society.
Just World Trauma is one of 13 subtypes of complex traumas African-Americans can be exposed to cumulatively on a daily basis. In this case, Dr. Wyatt suffered:
- Race based trauma-being viewed as a prostitute because of the color of her skin
- Micro aggressive assault trauma– the sexual comments were verbalized loudly with the intent to be heard and inflict emotional damage
- Invisibility Syndrome Trauma– the role of mother and spouse was denied of her
Dr. Wyatt’s reaction to this encounter are typical of African-Americans who are subjected to this trauma:
- Reaction– She reacted by emotionally trapping the traumatization within and questioning what she had done (her behavior, her dress) to deserve such treatment and to be viewed as a prostitute
- Response-She chose to remain silent. She made the decision to “pull myself together” and not tell her family.
- Sacrifice-She sacrificed her psychological self to protect her family by being silent about the encounter at first. She stated “my husband would be furious” and “my children would be upset if I was upset.”
Dr. Wyatt took the hit for the good of the family; she chose not to have their day of celebration be spoiled. Interestingly enough, Dr. Wyatt’s decision not to tell her husband immediately may have saved his life. As a woman who knew what her man would or would not accept, this was clearly unacceptable. Had her husband confronted these men, there may have been a more tragic and psychologically devastating outcome.
Suffering in Silence
African-Americans have historically understood the need to be silent even in the midst of great suffering and powerless, in order to survive.
“I was compelled to stand and see my wife shamefully scourged and abused by her master; and the manner in which it was done, was so violently and inhumanly committed upon the person of a female; that I despair in finding decent language to describe the blood act of cruelty.”
The survival of black Americans through their silence has changed little from slavery to the modern day. It is through black silence we have learned to adapt in the following ways:
- Learn to behave one way, even if you felt another
- Never discuss the kind of abuse you were experiencing
- Live with a sense of dignity in spite of the abuse
Today, these adaptations have resulted in African-Americans:
- Feigning submission, happiness and complacency in spite of whatever emotion the individual may actually be feeling.
- Experiencing trauma that may result in sleeplessness, fears of impending doom and flashbacks that won’t go away
- Using coping mechanisms such as dissociation in order to maintain emotional distance from the psychological wounds impacting one’s life.
The ABC’s of Empowerment: Ending Black Silence.
- A (Advocacy)- End the silence, speak for the psychological self (“I will accept that only I can advocate for my mental wellness.”)
- B (Balance)-Seek balance of feeling and thoughts (“Only I can bring balance within me as to what I feel and think.”)
- C (Calmness) Expel calmness to the external world (“I can and I will bring calmness to my external environment.”)
“African-Americans have shown the endurance to survive and achieve during times of hardship and adversity. Now we must demonstrate the ability to run the race smarter, not harder.”
-Dr. Micheal Kane
Our parents in their wisdom have taught us that to succeed we must learn the rules and play the game. We have tended to our psychological wounds with silence and other substances like food and alcohol for decades. Now, we must combine learning the rules and playing the game with running the race smarter, not harder.
To those who may be curious as to my response to the micro-aggressive assault, i.e. the question, “Are you any good?”
My response was simple: I asked the individual to accompany me to the building’s waiting room, where I suggested he seek an appointment with one of the white therapists in the building. In leaving, I remarked, “I choose my patients. If you were not sitting on the couch, someone more deserving of my assistance would be.”
I will not allow someone to take from or minimize what I have worked so hard and sacrifice so much as I walked my journey of self-discovery. I will advocate for me, obtain balance within my psychological self and in doing, achieve calmness in my external world, and I encourage all others to do the same.
“Life is like a marathon. Finish the race; don’t worry about coming in first place. Cross the finish line. Just finish what you start.”
-Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life , www.lovingmemore.com
Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…