The Psychological Toll Of Racism In The Wake Of Mizzou

How writing about racism everyday interacts with my mental illness.

When news of the incidents at Mizzou and then Howard University first broke, I was numb. As a writer, and a black woman, I felt a kind of obligation to write something, to say something that could make a difference. But I was coming up empty. What more can be said at this point? Where do we go from here? What can I write that I, or someone else, hasn't already?

I get at least five racist tweets a day, on a bad week. If I've been writing a lot about the latest incident of police brutality, or the protests at Mizzou for instance, there may be even more -- a whole avalanche of tweets from anonymous people telling me to stop "complaining" about racism. I've learned, because I've had to, to accept these tweets and these people for what and who they are. They are, after all, a part of the job that I've signed up for -- a job that gives me a platform to share my opinions and experiences publicly. To expect everyone to agree with me, or to be "nice" to me, would be absurd. 

But what I haven't quite got the hang of yet is dealing with the fatigue that comes with writing about race on an almost daily basis. When I write about racism, I also think about racism, and those thoughts follow me out of the newsroom into the real world, where, as a black woman, I actually deal with racism in a very real way. 

In an essay for Matter last year, writer Cord Jefferson wrote about "The Racism Beat," and what it's like to write about hate over and over and over. "If you’re black and your beat is to offer your thoughts and opinions on the degradation of black Americans, you’ll never want for steady work," Jefferson wrote. "A steady mind is not guaranteed."

As someone with a mental illness who also writes about the realities of racism all the time, this quote hits hard. I was diagnosed with anxiety and Bipolar II Disorder at age 10, which means I've dealt with constant bouts of nearly debilitating depression my whole adult life. Regularly going over the morbid details of how a black person was killed, or how a student was harassed in her classroom, subtly takes a toll on my mental health. It becomes harder and harder to recognize the distinction between my illness and the stress that arises from having to engage with the latest disturbing story. 

Writing has always been my therapy, a mode for me to work through my problems and neuroses by crystalizing them in a way that makes sense for me. But to write about racism is the very opposite of therapeutic. You write yourself into circles, reiterating over and over again in a myriad of ways that something is broken and we desperately need to figure out how to fix it. 

When we think about racism we tend to think that it's the older generation's problem. Oprah Winfrey suggested in a 2013 BBC interview that old racists will "just have to die" in order for real progress and change to begin. But in recent days, it's becoming clearer and clearer that this isn't the case. Far from it. 

What the eruption of protests on college campuses across the country are proving are that young black people are experiencing racism at the hands of young white people. These students are being harassed, isolated, called racial slurs, and are dealing with racial micro-aggressions on a daily basis. 

I've felt the strain, the triggering effects that the latest news of a black boy shot dead by the cops can cause. I've been called a n*gger. I've been told my dark skin is "disgusting," that my kinky hair is ugly. I've been told that I wasn't right for a job, only to see a white male colleague less qualified than I get it. I've catalogued these things away in my mind and, once again, "accepted" them as a part of my reality. 

There is not and perhaps never will be a definitive answer to what's going on, and I think that is the scariest part about all this. We thought the abolition of slavery or the end of segregation might put a stop to racism, but they didn't. They merely eased the strain. Today, the main talking point is "police brutality," but that's merely a symptom of a much bigger illness. This isn't some kind of fever dream. This is real, and it is every day. It's not just police brutality, it's not just discrimination. The students at Mizzou and across the country are reminding us that this is about quality of life. 

Some people will say that the students, in their youth, are being immature and infantile. They don't understand how the world works. They're hungry for attention, they've got a chip on their shoulders and would rather complain than suck it up and take it. But this is their lives. The fact that so many black students on so many campuses across the nation are fighting to make their voices heard shows that this problem is very, very real. But this is the insidiousness of racism, I think. After a while, it can make you feel crazy. 

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