The below presents the preliminary analyses of the key themes which will be reported on, as part of the empirical paper (of my doctoral thesis). It is not possible to report all themes and issues of interest in a single paper. But I am hoping to write additional papers, in due course.
This has been written to give participants and ‘community members’ the chance to comment and, provide feedback before the findings are finalised. This is part of the community engagement aspect of the study. I will allow 14 days for feedback.
Summary of findings
Over 300 individual incident/process of racial injustice were identified within the account of 13 people of African descent invited to discuss their experience of racial injustice and racism. The most frequent domains within which racial injustice was experienced were; education and employment although experiences or racism and racial injustice were reported within most social structures and contexts such as while shopping, dealing with the police, in the streets, in hospital, in churches, in foster care, at university, on social media etc… The most frequent class of racial injustice reported was micro-aggressions (subtler and more ambiguous racially denigrating acts).
The following themes will likely form the write-up of the study:
1. The pervasiveness of racism
2. Intersectional vulnerability
3. The weight of the past
4. A conspiracy of silence ?
5. Healing and growth
1. The pervasiveness of racism
This theme deals with how racial injustice seems to invade all aspects of participants’ experience.
The embodied experience
Participants reported bodily responses to being exposed to racial injustice (when appraised as such). Most were anxiety/threat related such as getting an increased heart rate, faster breathing and feeling tense. Those physical responses were reported by participants and could at times be observed during the research interviews when participants read and commented on the research vignette. A couple of participants attributed physical conditions and ill health to being exposed to the toxicity of racism for extended periods of time, and saw racism as becoming lodged in their body.
The epistemic experience
All participants’ account contained repeated experiences of doubting their experience in racially charged or unjust situations. This led to confusion and uncertainty, as well as a reluctance to name what they were experiencing for fear of being mistaken, facing further violence/denial or being invalidated/gaslighted. This destabilising of participant’s trust in their capacity to know (epistemic confidence) often led to more general feelings of self-doubt and resulted in participants not seeking help and support.
The psychological experience
The above experience led to distress which manifested in anxiety, low mood, despair, hopelessness, sadness powerlessness, panic and overwhelming anger. A few participants reported flashbacks, nightmares and feeling on guard (hyper-vigilance). Most participants reported having been diagnosed with ‘mental health problems’ varying in severity mostly, depression and anxiety related difficulties. One participant had been diagnosed with ‘psychosis’ and a ‘personality disorder’and one with ‘PTSD’ (in addition to depression). Five* participants reported no history of mental health struggles. No participant who had been in contact with the mental health system had their experience of racism included as part of the formulation/assessment or understanding of their distress.
The internalisation of racism led to most participants questioning their worth and to a sense of not being good enough/inferiority, at some point in their lives. This manifested in low self-esteem, self-hatred and in aspiring to or centring whiteness and white people, overtly or covertly such as by seeking to distance themselves from their blackness or making themselves more acceptable/ palatable to white people, in various ways. Internalised racism was also manifested in participants striving for excellence professionally or academically or in other behaviours in an effort to avoid confirming racial stereotypes or to prove their worth and intelligence.
2. Intersectional vulnerability
This theme explores how experience of racial injustice and trauma intersect with other (non-race related) experience of injustice and trauma.
Racial injustice and other life events.
The study participants’ stories highlighted how those participants who had experienced more adversity reported more distress when faced with racism and racial injustice so that for example, participants who had been separated from parents, participants who had experienced non-racism related abuse appeared to have more severe responses to racial injustice and racial abuse. Thus, racial injustice appears to intersect with or to trigger/hook onto previous experiences of injustice/trauma.
Experience of racial injustice is influenced by other axes of oppression
Experiences of racial injustice were shaped by other axes of oppression and, those who were located at the intersection of more axes, seem to be more severely impacted upon by racial injustice and racial trauma. More women than men reported psychological distress. Distress also appeared more pronounced in those who identified as queer or gay. The most significant axe appeared to be disability/chronic physical/mental health with participants identifying as disabled or chronically ill or with more ‘severe and enduring’ mental health problems, reporting more disturbing and often more violent experiences of racism.
On being multiply Othered While the lack of social support is not an axe of oppression per se, it is often a by-product of being socially marginalised. What the participants’stories revealed was a sense of being doubly or triply Othered thus doubly or triply isolated. Many spoke not only of being the only black person in a professional space but also the only queer person too or being the only black and the only working class person in class, for example. It seemed that the most heighted experience of racial injustice and racism occurred when participants lack the social support and felt isolated. This experience appeared to be compounded by a sense of cultural homelessness or feeling like one neither belongs or fits in within the culture of one’s parents/ancestry and or that of the country of one’s birth/residence. And again, those who were multiply Othered, or hit more axes of oppressions seemed to also experience more isolation and cultural homelessness related distress.
3. The weight of the past
This theme focuses on the intergenerational context. It highlights the presence of the past (the there and then) in the participants ‘present (the here and now) and, how the suffering and treatment of previous generations continues to shape participants’ experience of the world.
The pain of the past
It was clear that participants carried within their consciousness the collective abuse and collective violence carried out on people of African descent via, colonialism, slavery and imperialism. This led participants to interpret their personal experience of racism (and that of others) or racial injustice material; such as the one presented in the research vignette in light of the historical lenses of colonialism, imperialism and slavery. Although this was to a large degree helpful in supporting participants’ understanding of the present, it increased a sense of injustice.
Generational stories passed on
In addition to more cultural or collective narratives and wounds evoked during the interviews, the past was present in the participants’ accounts through parents and grand-parents passing on stories of how to be behave around white people and how to maximise one’s chances of survival, often via assimilative expectations. These intergenerational survival scrips such as ‘work twice as hard’, do not ‘rock the boat’, ‘keep your head down’ were at odds with younger generations’ experiences of modern racism and with their racial politics, leading to them feeling ill-equipped to function within and navigate white supremacy, today.
Intergenerational transmission of family trauma
Family trauma particularly, parental trauma related and not related to racism appeared to become reproduced within participants’ lives. For example, several mothers who were described as having become depressed or distressed because of their experience of racism had daughters who suffered in the same way. Some participants attributed part of their distress to their parents’ struggling to cope with racial injustice and their own distress; and thus, being unavailable to provide psychological support to their children.
4. A conspiracy of silence?
This theme aims to describe the all-encompassing silence that seems to envelop participants’ experiences of racial injustice and racism at individual, family and structural level.
Parental reluctance to discuss racism and racial injustice
What the study exposed is that the overwhelming majority of participants did not have conversations about racism and racial injustice as children or even as teenagers with their parents/carers. About half never had such conversations with their parents even as adults. When assessing this absence participants believed their parents/carers might have been trying to protect their innocence, avoid painful conversations or struggled themselves. Several participants named denial and/or their parents believing naming racism will impede their children’s social ascension. For those few participants who discussed racial injustice at home, the subject was cut off from its emotional contents and impact and, approached more politically or as a matter of fact. All participants said these conversations were vital to support the wellbeing of children. Those participants who were parents, had committed to discussing racism and racial injustice with their own children.
Children internalisation of silence
Perhaps as a result of their parents’ behaviour, participants as children it appeared, learnt not to raise race related issues or racism at home. The majority of participants said they had experienced racism at school or elsewhere as children such as being called the N word, being racially bullied, being treated with hostility by teachers or by peers and, had not raised this with anyone. When participants were asked why they had kept silent most spoke of feelings of self-blame, shame and thought they had done something wrong as children. A few participants felt they did not want to burden their busy/hard-working parents or carers. Some had not understood straight away that the event(s) was/were racially motivated.
One of the most disturbing (but unsurprising) aspects of the study was the reproduction of silence within social systems. All study participants reported some silencing from various structures when they had attempted to speak of their experience of racism or racial injustice. Chronic experiences of denial and dismissal were reported from various structures, from schools to the police to mental health services. Those participants who had had therapy reported encountering hostility and refusal to engage with racism from their therapists and at times some pathologising (e.g. being accused of paranoia). As a result, those participants eventually decided not to bring up racism to therapy particularly with white therapists or stop therapy. It is important to note that although most participants expressed a preference for black mental health professionals, blackness alone had not guaranteed non-Eurocentric & race erasing interventions and one participant in particular, spoke of a black therapist treating them in a racially oppressive manner.
5. Healing and growth
This theme centres what participants found helpful to support themselves with their experience of racial injustice or in what allowed in the participants, a sense of growth or psychological ‘resilience’ to racial injustice and racism.
Stopping appeasing or centring whiteness
All participants described a process of becoming more assertive and unapologetic in their blackness and this being a fundamental shift from attempting to appease whiteness in order to survive. This involved for participants, learning about their history, developing a stronger ethnic identity, becoming less compromising around their racialised experiences and centering their own needs, often it appears, triggering retaliation and hostility from white people or systems.
Connecting with other black people
Participants spoke of how difficult it had been for them be the only black body in white spaces and how important it became for them to actively seek out networks and groups of other black people to connect and share experience without feeling a need to perform, wear a mask or, centre the needs of white people. Several participants spoke of having had to break relationships which white friends which were racially toxic.
Connecting the dots…
What seems to have been central in enabling participants to not only trust themselves and their experience but to also make sense of the same, is having access to the language and conceptual frameworks that exist around racism and oppression. Black feminist scholars such as Audre Lorde were repeatedly cited as having been key to participants’ healing and growth journeys. As participants became more familiar with such scholarship and developed a stronger social consciousness, they became better able to formulate and articulate their experience and more epistemically confident and it appears, less distressed and psychologically vulnerable to/by racism.
This has been written to primarily invite feedback from the participants and from UK based black groups. The final paper may shift and will include supportive quotes throughout. I welcome input from anyone, but please if you do not belong to the demographic specified above, clearly say what your ethnicity is and where you reside. You can leave feedback or comment below, or use the contact page.
* I have in the end decided to include a participant’s difficulties with stress at university as ‘psychological difficulties’ changing the number of people who have reported no mental health problem to four.
Thanks for reading and, a special thank you to the study participants.