Juneteenth & The Stress of Racism

Humantold June 18, 2021

Whether experiencing it first-hand or witnessing it in the media, racism is incredibly damaging to mental and physical health of people of color.

Today is Juneteenth. Also called Freedom Day, Liberty Day, and Emancipation Day. 

Today, 156 years ago, 300,000 Black Texans learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had outlawed enslavement and that they were free. 

It is important to note that this event occurred nearly 2.5 years after the actual signing of the Emancipation Proclamation—a very long time for those experiencing continued oppression and violence of enslavement.  It is a reminder of the ongoing challenge in uniting the entire country in a common social purpose, even to this day.

While Juneteenth is in many ways a celebratory holiday, it's also an occasion to acknowledge that the oppression, violence, and dehumanization of African Americans remains present in society. 156 years later, slavery's legacy is still alive and well, and it continues to impact the wellbeing of Black Americans. 

The Stress of Being Black 

Racism wasn't eradicated when slavery ended; instead, it helped lay the foundation for how our current society operates today. Its legacy creates a chronically stressful and violent atmosphere for all people of color. Within this environment, Black Americans carry both the burden of their own personal experiences with racism and those of their ancestors. 

As we've discussed in previous articles, trauma can be passed down through generations in what is called transgenerational trauma. Through this unique form of trauma, people living today may experience mental health issues from the racism, oppression, and discrimination that their parents or grandparents lived through. However, for African Americans, transgenerational trauma stretches back centuries. 

Psychologist Dr. Joy DeGruy posits that while enslavement ended over a century ago, it is still psychologically impacting African Americans today. In her explanatory theory, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), Dr. DeGruy brilliantly links specific adaptive behaviors found in Black people alive today to those of enslaved individuals who lived centuries ago. 

She explains that symptoms of PTSS can manifest as extreme feelings of suspicion, violence against self, a general self-destructive outlook, Learned Helplessness, literacy deprivation, and much more. We highly recommend you read Dr. DeGruy's book and watch this excellent interview where she fully describes PTSS. 

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome explains how enslavement has a multi-generational impact on the life and wellness of African Americans. But racism did not end with abolition; the trauma continued after the legal eradication of slavery. Oppression from slavery continued and even expanded through Jim Crow Laws and public lynchings, and it is still mirrored today in issues like police violence and socioeconomic inequalities.

Many different factors contribute to racism's continued presence in American society. Racism is a process of dehumanizing another person. Dehumanization comes at a huge mental and physical cost to the victim, and loved ones. In other words, experiencing racism can be incredibly stressful. 

Racism and Health

Whether experiencing it first-hand or witnessing it in the media, racism is damaging to mental health. A recent study revealed personally experiencing racism created "elevated stress responses in the sympathetic nervous system" of African-American and Latinx participants.

Racism is a chronic stressor that is entrenched in social interactions, institutions, media, the health care system, and so on. Things like systemic discrimination, physical violence, and microaggressions trigger a flight or fight response in the nervous system. Continual activation of the stress-response system can lead to many health issues like obesity, diabetes, depression, PTSD, and cognitive impairment.

Physical and emotional wellness is, in many ways, a form of personal freedom. Being able to live in safety and acceptance is the foundation of wellness. When we live in a constant state of trauma, we cannot freely be ourselves and live our lives to the fullest expression. Feeling safe, loved, and respected is a human right. Mental and physical wellness is a human right. 

Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates freedom, commemorates the struggle against enslavement, and acknowledges the work left in the fight against systemic racism and oppression. Today and every day, we need to continue to fight to create a safer society for everyone.

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