PAL Coalition meeting focuses on Black Trauma
July 21, 2015
Racism and trauma go hand in hand, explained Darryl Turpin, a co-principal of The Pinwheel Group, which works with black males, 18-29, involved in the criminal justice system. In fact, he told the crowd of 80 or so community, business and service agency leaders, “racism is trauma,” which drew a number of “Amens” from those gathered to hear him talk about Black Trauma at a meeting of the PAL Coalition, a collaborative working with at-risk youth in the Park Hill, Algonquin and Old Louisville communities. Even more, he said, “racism can cause post-traumatic stress,” which drew even more amens, and today is drawing scientific scrutiny, especially in the wake of the murders of nine people at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by avowed racist Dylann Roof. While that posit remains in study, what is clear is that many black Americans experience what psychologists call “race-based trauma,” says Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville. African-Americans are hit hard by incidents that recall the nation’s nearly 400 years of institutionalized racism, she says – 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow laws and the often-troubled years of integration/segregation. Turpin sees it as chronic adversity: ongoing discrimination, oppression and prejudice, and he believes the effects of these obstacles/challenges are cumulative. These aren’t single-occurrence events. They add up, one atop the other, multiplying the trauma. “Every time a white woman crosses the street to avoid a black man, every time a woman holds her purse tighter in an elevator with a black man, every time a black shopper is followed in a store by a store employee, produces trauma. The black man or woman might not see it as trauma, it may just make them sad or even angry, but make no mistake, that’s trauma,” Turpin said. And that trauma – like all trauma – has impact. African-Americans who regularly experience these behaviors have an increased likelihood of risk behaviors, like smoking, drinking, overeating, as a means to cope, and a higher risk of mental health issues, chronic physical illness and early mortality. “There’s a war going on in many black neighborhoods,” Turpin said, “and there are casualties. The war on drugs, black on black crime, the emotional wear and tear from concerns about stop and frisk and driving while black are quite literally killing black men and women.” There are societal effects, too, including family violence, depression, inability to access health care, under and unemployment, family and community conflict and the loss of personal and cultural identity. When you hear you are something – less than human, not equal, whatever – again and again and again, it’s hard to not begin to accept the negative messages, to let it tear away at your self-esteem, said Turpin, and then to reflect that negativity in your behavior. It’s a cycle that begins with racism but always ends in trauma, he said. But he added that African-American communities have and are using racism and trauma as opportunities for growth and development, citing resilience as a key strength of black communities. “African-Americans have endured nearly 400 years of institutionalized racism, but we’re still here,” said Turpin, who also cited religion and spirituality – through the church and in faith and belief in a higher power – as strengths in African-American communities. “Both provide sanctuary for blacks who seek refuge from the day-to-day pressures they face in life.” All of it speaks to healing, said Turpin, who shared a quote from Maya Angelou – “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” “We have to help them – black men and women, boys and girls, tell their stories, and to manage and focus the trauma.” His own work at the Pinwheel Group is aimed to give young black men involved in the criminal justice system alternatives – hope – through H.E.A.T.: Habilitation, Empowerment and Accountability Therapy, a culturally relevant model that emphasizes a positive and engaging approach to treatment. “We give them a safe place to feel what they feel,” said Turpin. “We connect culturally through values, beliefs, traditions they hold and consider norm, and we give them the room to express their anger at racism in our sessions without punishment or penalty.” It’s what he advises for all providers who work with African-Americans enduring or suffering trauma – from racism or any cause. “Look for and understand coping strategies – humor, withdrawal, music, not just symptoms like anger or behavior,” he said. “Give them a voice and a choice; utilize their points of reference – historical, cultural, dialect, and spiritual. Help them make sense of what has taken place – the historical perspective of racism and how it manifests today.” At the close, Turpin thanked the audience for its time and attention, but it was those of us in the audience to express our thanks as well – for insights into a too-seldom discussed topic – Black Trauma – for his easygoing and impactful approach, and to the PAL Coalition for facilitating such an important and interesting program. Photos: Top, the crowd listens to Darryl Turpin’s presentation on Black Trauma. Inset: Turpin with PAL Coalition team members Tomy Baker Molloy and Nancy Carrington.