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Overcoming the Trauma of Anti-Black Racism Through Radical Self-Care

By Guilaine Kinouani

Black woman at ease
Image credit: msahbee0

Racism causes harm.

Harm to the body. And harm to the mind. Yet it was only in November 2020 that the American Medical Association recognized racism as an urgent threat to public health. Thankfully, many of us did not wait for this penny to drop to tackle its impact. For about fifteen years, I have been working therapeutically with people of color, supporting almost exclusively Black people distressed by racism and experiencing racial trauma. Living While Black seeks to offer the same support in book form, by presenting some of this work—the politics and personal and professional experiences that underlie my psychology and psychotherapy practice—to help us find connection, hope, and empowerment.

First, I want to tell you a little bit about the journey that brought this book to life. I have carved my practice out of the whiteness of psychology and psychotherapy. I have carved it out of the thousands of micro and macro experiences of discrimination and Othering I had to navigate. I have refused to ignore this rich set of data, the intellectual gifts contained therein, and their potential to help others heal. Exploring and reflecting on my own lived experience, my lived evidence, has been central to understanding patterns of harm and domination but also patterns of resistance. My scholarship was born out of the documentation of these patterns on Race Reflections, a platform that started as a blog and turned into a social enterprise dedicated to tackling inequality, injustice, and oppression. Women—especially Black women—are socialized to distrust what we know and to be suspicious of our own authority. Often, we stop ourselves from using our gifts, or wait for someone to give us the go-ahead, or to tell us how to start and when to start. I had little support when I decided to set up my practice. What drove me was simply a strong will or perhaps a strong need to have a space where, as a Black woman, a mental health professional, and a psychologist, I could engage with mental health and psychology from the vantage point of being a Black female body in the world, with the richness, complexities, and baggage that this entails.

In distilling these complex learnings, the primary aim of Living While Black is to make many of us who often haven’t felt this way feel heard, seen, and held. This book seeks to help Black people thrive by first addressing the nuances of Blackness, then creating a tailored self-care plan. The first aspect is achieved via case studies, research, and strategies born out of countless hours of clinical practice and personal reflections, some of it extracted from the work of Race Reflections. The second aspect guides the reader as they self-reflect and prompts them to engage in self-care activities. Living While Black is a vital psychology guide for Black people. It is also an anti-racist text for others who simply want to better understand the effects of anti-Black racism so they can do better. And it is a resource for mental health, social care, and medical practitioners working with Black people.

This book sheds a light on the trauma of racism—its impact on both our mental and physical health and its consequences across individuals’ lifespans, across generations, and across social contexts. It exposes anti-Black experiences, which society tells us are not occurring or, if they are occurring, are not causing us harm. I want there to be no doubt that racism harms and that racial trauma is real. But, equally, I want to show that it is possible to resist and to practice radical self-care while navigating white supremacy.

The material you will encounter here does not reach most psychology and psychotherapy “teaching” or our collective consciousness. In fact, it is material we have learned to censor. It is therefore rich and heavy material that you are asked to engage with and to honor. Here you will encounter intersectional violence, intergenerational wounds, normalized trauma, everyday resistance, cultural homelessness, structural inequality, and all the intersections of the socioeconomic, the political, the historical, the institutional, the relational, and the psychological. This is the stuff that tends not to reach Black people who seek support for psychological distress. Many mental health professionals still believe politics belongs outside our therapy rooms. That therapy is not political. The whiteness of this position is still to be accepted as a fact, let alone as a problem. Way too many mental health professionals consider social structures and indeed racism to be a distraction from the real issues or a vehicle to the real issues. And for way too many psychotherapists and psychologists, the real issues still lie in our relationship with our mother (imagine a slave in distress at their condition, being asked to reflect on their relationship with their mother, to get to the “real issues”).

Over the years, Black people have come to my practice after having been further harmed by those whose job it is to facilitate healing. Psychotherapy and mental health services continue to struggle to work with racism; in fact, they often reproduce it. Mindlessly. The reality is this: If you are Black and those you seek support from are unwilling to look at racism and the trauma it inflicts, these individuals or systems are simply unwilling to look you in the eye. They do not want to see you. They are not prepared to engage with the weight and complexities of our shared and often bloody history. From there, there is usually nowhere to go but an impasse. A wall. The wall of whiteness. It is this absence of thinking that leads to a gap that continues to make racism nearly impossible to address in therapy for way too many.

It is in that gap that some of us are forced to sit while being encouraged to displace Black rage toward our mothers because their capacity to be mothers was affected by the unjust structures within which they mothered us: the abject xenophobia, the racism, the patriarchy, the poverty. I think of my own mom too. Her back is pretty much broken. The social symbolism of a Black woman with a broken back is such a powerful one. So many of the Black women I know have broken backs. Being the mules of society carries such a heavy burden. And so many of their daughters have sore throats or are losing their voices trying to speak words few are prepared to hear. This is what being silenced can do. Black backs have a long history of carrying loads—white loads. And of being flogged for not keeping silent. But we are entitled to take some of the weight off and share it. And we are entitled to speak. And we are entitled to write. In fact, we absolutely must make our voices heard by any means necessary if we are to stand any chance of stopping history from becoming fatality by repetition.

Living While Black provides more specific tools to help you with specific challenges such as managing race-based stress, coping with Black shame, and talking to Black children about race. The title comes from an expression that has been part of racial discourse for decades. The phrase “ . . . while Black” is used by Black academics, journalists, writers, and activists in and outside the US to describe the challenges of existing, resisting, and thriving within white supremacy. The term links its origins to a 1999 Minnesota Law Review paper by David A. Harris subtitled “Why ‘Driving While Black’ Matters,” which exposed the treatment of Black motorists by the police in 1990s America. The phrase has since been used in a variety of other contexts, such as “birding while Black,” “traveling while Black,” and “working while Black.” It highlights the differing experiences and outcomes of these mundane activities when they are carried out by Black people—because of racism, racial profiling, and the associated risks to our safety, all of which will be explored in this book.

Please also note that the contents of Living While Black may sometimes be distressing. You may feel a temptation to disconnect, to put the book down. We know that human beings go to extraordinary lengths to avoid pain, discomfort, and tension. This has resulted in us continuing to refuse to confront the reality of racism. But breaking silences matters. It is always the first step in breaking the cycle of abuse. And we can only break silences if people accept the invitation to hear and see. Here, you are invited. While I primarily address the Black reader directly, and the activities and strategies are focused on our needs, many of the tools will no doubt be helpful to others who experience racism and oppression. I want to again be clear, however, that everyone is invited to come in and reflect on the work we all must do, and to think of what they themselves can do to lighten the load.

Consider this invitation a gift.


About the Author 

Guilaine Kinouani is a UK-based French radical and critical psychologist of Congolese descent. She is a feminist, a therapist, and an equality consultant, as well as the founder, leader, and award-nominated writer for Kinouani is a senior psychologist and an adjunct professor of Black and Africana studies at Syracuse University, London. Kinouani heads Race Reflections and its academy, providing workshops on anti-racism, racial trauma, and self-care. She is the author of Living While Black: Using Joy, Beauty, and Connection to Heal Racial Trauma. She tweets as @KGuilaine.