A Racial Trauma Therapist Breaks Down The Black Lives Matter Protests

The protests are more than a fight against police brutality and racism. They're a signal of deep-rooted pain stemming back to slavery. Ashley McGirt explains what's going on.

Ashley McGirt’s work has tripled in the last few weeks.

As a longtime activist and licensed mental health therapist in Washington state, McGirt has spent a lot of her time educating people about racial trauma and how it affects Black people, indigenous communities and other people of color today.

She’s trained employees at Amazon and Lockheed Martin, as well as people at Yale University and the University of Washington. Last year, she gave a TED Talk on why Black people in marginalized communities die too soon.

So when the nationwide protests over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd prompted anger and unrest across the country, McGirt launched the Washington Therapy Fund to help Black people in her community get access to free mental health support.

She couldn’t help but wonder: Why are some people only just starting to pay attention to racism and police brutality?

“This isn’t anything new,” McGirt told HuffPost. “It’s sometimes quite offensive [to me] as a Black woman because it’s new to [people on the outside].”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black people can sometimes experience more severe forms of mental health conditions due to unmet needs and other barriers. Discrimination and marginalization of Black people can create roadblocks to education, health care and economic opportunities, which can contribute to mental health problems.

HuffPost talked to McGirt to explain the context behind the pain and frustration that’s bubbling at the surface of these protests.

Here’s what she had to say.

What do people need to know about these protests?

McGirt: To understand the protests, you have to really understand the history of America. You have to understand racism and what this country was founded on.

There has never been any truth and reconciliation from slavery. There was never any reparations, no apology. Our people are hurting.

Now, we currently have 40 million people unemployed. We know how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Black people. We know that the No. 1 essential workers are Black and brown people. And we know that they tend to live in multi-generational homes, so they’re at risk.

So having all of this compiled and compiled and compiled, and then you see a video of a police officer who’s meant to serve and protect having a knee on George Floyd’s neck... then, as Black women, we’re not even really hearing about Breonna and the other Black women who are also a part of this movement.

There’s a number of different things that are going on and taking place that are deeper issues.

The protests are deeper. There’s a lot of built-up inner rage. There’s a lot of truth coming out that has never really been to the forefront. We honor a lot of history in this country, but we’ve never really been able to honor Black history. We’re supposed to just forget about it.

How are these protests affecting Black people mentally and physically?

McGirt: It’s causing a lot of stress, a lot of exhaustion, anxiety.

We’ve already seen this collectively as a people, which is why we’re the No. 1 people impacted by COVID-19. We have a lot of co-morbidities. Our body carries on our stress.

Yet sometimes as a people, we’re very resilient. We have a high level of emotional resilience, but our bodies don’t and our bodies begin to break down.

I’ve been seeing lots of people having nosebleeds because the pressure literally becomes compacted to where their nose starts to bleed. Their necks are hurting because we’re walking around and bracing ourselves, like, “What’s next?”

So when your body is in a constant state of, like, heightened tightness, it takes a toll on you physically, mentally. And then just hearing from your white colleagues, your white friends, who are checking in and just now really noticing, people who didn’t see what had been happening your entire life.

So yeah, it definitely takes a huge psychological toll.

What goes through your mind when you see conservative news outlets focus on the rioting and looting at the protests?

McGirt: They don’t want to see it as it is. They have one set narrative, and they’re not open [to expanding it].

Sometimes we get stuck in our ways, especially if you weren’t ever really exposed to anything different. And so it shows me that you’re not having a non-biased perspective as a reporter, that you’re having a certain agenda and you want it to be this way.

How can it be that you show up at a protest, and there are so many different aspects of the protest occurring, and that’s the one thing that you innately go to and that you report on to the people?

There’s something going on internally that needs to be worked through, whether that’s healing some of your ancestral wounds, especially white reporters, because they carry a lot of that guilt and shame around what their ancestors did.

They don’t want to reconcile that. So they make [the protests appear to] be one way.

How can activists redirect the conversation back to the Black Lives Matter movement?

McGirt: Accurate reporting. These journalists [who are covering the protests] need to be held accountable. If they’re not going to report accurately, we’re not going to tune into their stations. We’re not going to read their articles. We’re going to give them thumbs downs, negative reviews, all of those things.

Bring out the street reporting. Here in Seattle, we have Africatown and Omari Salisbury. He’s a reporter that goes to the streets with an iPhone, and he records it.

He’s accurately showing us what’s going on. And it was interesting because he has a non-biased perspective.

He’s not standing for one way, and he says it in his street reporting, too. He says [in his videos], “I’m not for either side. I just want to bring you the truth from the streets, and I’m here with my phone.”

What do you want critics to know about these protests?

McGirt: I wish they understood the impact of post-traumatic slave syndrome and how it has been passed down generationally. I wish they understood epigenetics and intergenerational trauma. I wish they understood our pain.

I wish they understood how to show up and see us.

There are so many things that I wish.

What is post-traumatic slave syndrome?

McGirt: It was coined by Dr. Joy DeGruy. She’s actually the author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” [a book that] talks about the inherited stress from African Americans through slavery.

Essentially, she describes how, after slavery ended, no one sat down with free slaves to offer them group therapy, not even individual therapy. We just had to keep moving. And our brothers and sisters, our family members were separated. They were lynched. They were slaughtered.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, there was never any collective healing.

And then Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, no one ever sat down the African American population and said, “Hey, let’s have some collective healing.”

How is that different from racial trauma?

McGirt: Racial trauma relates to the race-based stress that people of color, indigenous people and Black people experience from seeing other people of color, indigenous people being harmed publicly facing constant re-exposure to it.

It’s like post-traumatic stress disorder, but PTSD tends to sometimes be a singular incident. ... With racial trauma, it’s always ongoing, and it has a huge impact. It causes fear, hypervigilance, shame, guilt, anxiety, depression.

Racial trauma is a Black doctor who was going outside trying to help the homeless ... and being taken by the police. This is actually a real incident that occurred.

Racial trauma is a Black man going into a Walmart with a mask on and having the police called on him so he could take his mask off. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and he can’t even have a mask on to protect himself from a deadly virus because people fear how he looks? Yet, everyone else in Walmart has a mask on, and only the police were called on him?

That’s racial trauma.

Does racial trauma play a role in the anger and emotion that can be seen at the protests?

McGirt: It’s definitely contributing. It’s those frequent re-experiences and exposure to stressful experiences that keep popping up.

When you’re watching people going up to a peaceful protest and still being harmed by the police, that’s racial trauma.

Black activists and educators have done a lot of work these past few weeks to educate people on racism and how it affects Black people. What has that experience been like?

McGirt: When it comes to education, it’s a double-edged sword. There are educators like myself. I get paid to do this. This is something I invested in my education and my time to do. I show up in spaces and make sure that I’m able to educate schools, institutions, organizations, individuals. But I’m not doing it 24/7.

If that’s not your job, it’s not your job to educate others. I feel like too often in the workplace, individuals feel like they have to take that on, especially if they’re a Black person or another person of color.

We feel like, well, it’s my duty to show up in that space. But honestly, your duty is to show up and do your job and be productive in that space.

If you have the time and the energy, and you want to educate others, you could. But it’s not on the corporation or your colleagues to expect you to do that. If you work in IT, work in IT. That’s your role.

If you see that some education needs to happen, you can go to HR, and they can bring someone in like myself who can do the education.

But I believe in protecting the self at all costs.

Black people are facing the burden of having to explain racism to others. What do you want white people to know?

McGirt: This work takes a lot of energy. It’s exhausting and it takes a toll on your body, mentally and physically.

You can do it [teach yourself about racism]. We’ve been educating ourselves as Black people since the beginning. YouTube is free. ... If we could teach ourselves our own history, you can take a little bit of time to do the work.

What would you say to white people who want to help right now?

McGirt: I would say don’t make it about you. This isn’t about you right now. It’s been about you. From the moment we stepped foot on the soil, this soil that I stand on, which is the Duwamish territory here in Washington, where I live. It’s not even our land. It’s stolen land.

From the moment I stepped foot on this soil, it’s been about white people. So allow this moment to be about someone other than yourself.

Work through your own guilt. You don’t know what to say? Be honest. Say, “I don’t know what to say.”

It’s OK to say that you don’t know what words [to use] but ask, “How can I show up? How can I show up for you? How can I hold space for you?”

What advice would you give to activists and protesters?

McGirt: To take breaks. To rest.

Rest is a revolutionary act. We have to sleep. That really allows our brains time to process. When our brain isn’t getting sleep, it’s not charging. It’s literally like a charger for our iPhone. And we know how we can’t survive without our iPhone charger.

Even doing things like progressive muscle relaxation.

Our bodies are in a heightened state of stress. We’re constantly bracing ourselves and on guard. But the science behind progressive muscle relaxation is that when you release those muscles, you release that tension.

And do something that brings you joy.

I understand the cause and understand showing up for the protest. Just because the world is up in flames doesn’t mean you have to burn yourself with it. It doesn’t mean you have to light yourself on fire to make somebody else feel warm.

You could definitely show up and still feel joy.

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