The Long Term Mental Impact of Overt Racism and One Simple Thing We Can Do to Address It
By: Valerie E. Fontenot
We all remember vividly the first time we were called a racial slur. For me, I was in the Fifth grade. I was about 11 years old. I was taking a test in Sister Agnes' science class and refused to let a fellow classmate cheat off of my work. She looked me in the eye and called me a n****r. That incident had a profound effect on me to the extent that I can remember everything about that day: what I was wearing, what she was wearing, exactly where I was sitting in the class, what we were doing, and mostly importantly how I felt. The next incident for me was not less than a year later when a classmate told me that even though we were friends at school I was not allowed to spend the night at her house because I was black.
I'm now a woman in her 30s now, who can so vividly recall incidents over 20 years ago when she was a child. This incident shows the mental trauma inflicted by overt racist acts. It stays with us and more importantly accumulates with each incident we witness. Over the years we have seen countless black lives taken from us in unjustifiable incidents, which have resulted in little to no action.
These incidents have a cumulative traumatic effect on the psyche. The accumulation came to a spearhead for me in the George Floyd case. I just couldn't shake it and finally realized that I couldn't shake the YEARS of mental trauma that showed I didn't belong purely because of the color of my skin. I was so distraught by not only the incident itself but by the lack of response of many of my friends, co-workers, some family members, and those I interact with every day. For some reason, the nation and the world could respond and acknowledge that we black folks aren't crazy and that our lives matter, but those who I see every day didn't even have a simple question: "Hey, are you ok?"
If you think because we're lawyers or educated professionals and put on a smiling face each day that we are all ok, many of you will be mistaken. That same training we've gone through to make us litigators in the courtroom has also trained us to hide our emotions. We must remember that of all the times, now is the time that it's ok to say "I'm not ok."
If we know we aren't feeling ok ourselves, we must realize that similarly our friends, families and co-workers are likewise not feeling ok. While it seems like some of the unrest is starting to die down, it's now more important than ever that we continue to be kind to one another and check on another to make sure we are all making it from one day to the next. The mental effects are long lasting and won't go away with the news coverage. We should make sure to be kind and to check in with folks. Even if it has been months or weeks since you've spoken with someone, a simple phone call or text to a friend will always be welcome and cannot be overrated. Because just as the events of my youth are indelibly marked on my brain, so too are the moments when two partners checked in on me in the weeks following George Floyd's murder. They simply asked how I was doing, listened to my thoughts, and reminded me that if I ever needed to talk they are always there. Nothing made me prouder to be a part of my firm than those moments, those simple acts of kindness of my partners recognizing the effects on me and not choosing to ignore them.
I encourage you to check on your family, friends, and co-workers. That simple act of kindness or check-in may make all the difference in someone's day and in feeling validated in their feelings. While those acts cannot erase the past mental trauma we experience, they can help to counteract previous negative experiences and continue to make progress on reducing the mental toll whose effects we are all feeling today.
VP of Internal Communications
GNO Martinet Society