(Op-ed) How Daily Discrimination Affects African Americans' Mental Health
by Amira Toivonen (American School in Doha)
Our society currently in midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for social justice, reminding everyone about the visible discrimination that occurs on a day-to-day basis: African American citizens face employment discrimination, media misrepresentation, and the list goes on. But how does a lack of being seen and heard affect African Americans' mental states?
For example, when people in privilege do not care to understand Black persons’ oppression; repeating phrases like “all lives matter”, “racism doesn’t exist”, or “racism is just an excuse for your circumstances”, it becomes exhausting for African Americans to maintain their composure despite incessant trauma, oppression, and ignorance, especially while trying to fight for their right to be recognized in our modern social structure.
This isn’t just a result of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, too---Black mental health has been suffering for years at a time. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 - 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233 percent, as compared to 120 percent of non-Hispanic whites.”
Arguably, these debilitating stereotypes can be passed down from historical adversity. A long history of racially-driven exclusion, slavery, and subservience are the reasons why many African-Americans do not get the quality levels of mental health care they deserve today, especially in comparison to their white counterparts.
For hundreds—if not thousands---of years, Black Americans have been expected to carry enormous amounts of pressure on their backs without snapping. A 1999 study by Clark et. al in the American Psychologist revealed that although negative stereotypes and attitudes around Blacks have decreased, they act as biopsychological triggers that further weigh on Black Americans’ mental health.
Additionally, Black people are more likely to suffer from hypervigilance: a mental health disorder that refers to your brain continually being on a “high” alert. Since African Americans are continually seen as a threat, they have to constantly adjust their frame of mind to make sure that they are not seen as dangerous to society. As such, the brains of Black people act as a ticking time bomb, triggering a fight or flight response at any moment. This flight or flight response is courtesy of the thousands of years of oppression they have faced, and the expectations they have in our modern social sphere.
Furthermore, Black children are growing up in a social-media-driven world that normalizes lighter skin tones as “good”.Take the latest social media trend: TikTok. Out of the most followed TikTokers in the world, none of them identify as Black. A lack of representation amongst such popular social media labels, especially in younger groups, creates an illusion that Black Americans are truly in the minority, and makes Black children grow up self-conscious because they believe they are not 'mainstream' enough for popular culture. This lack of acknowledgment creates further insecurities as Black Americans continue to fight for representation. Normalizing Blacks in media will allow for less pressure to be placed on them to ‘fight’ for their culture on a psychological and social level.
In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments known as “the doll tests”, to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children. Four dolls (identical in every way except color) were placed in front of children 3-7 years old, and they were asked to identify the race and which doll they would prefer the most.
According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “[a] majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it.” When the study was performed in Massachusetts, it was reported that some Black children ran out crying when asked which doll was the closest to them--a disturbing reality. Although the study was performed decades ago, it is an example of the perpetuated low self-esteem that Black Americans are subject to. The study was endorsed by 35 famous social scientists at the time and was used in many testimonies for the Brown vs. Board of Education to exemplify the mental health struggles that Blacks suffer through because of their skin color.
Of course, there are thousands more psychological studies conducted on Black Americans—but now is probably one of the most important times to understand how they think regularly. Trying to learn about the minds of marginalized peoples might be the most important thing we can do to empathize with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and continue to have conversations with friends and family so Black Americans know that they are protected—both mentally and physically.
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