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OPINION

Yes, racism is a public health crisis

Living in Boston while Black means regularly feeling unsafe, anxious, and tired.

Ally Rzesa

When Mayor Marty Walsh announced recently that racism is a public health crisis, I thought, no kidding. Racism’s toll on my physical and mental health is real. Each day, every day, it’s a fight to make my way in the world.

There are two stories I can tell about myself, and both of them are true. In the first, I am a well-educated Black woman who grew up in material comfort in Europe, became a mother to amazing children, and made my way in the professional world at a high level. In the second story, I am a survivor of domestic violence who gave up my children, my job, my home, and dreams of pursuing a doctorate in my field. In order to save my life, I had to lose it all.

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The line running through all of it, the scar across my internal landscape, is racism. I experienced it when I was the lucky-on-paper version of myself, contending with sexual harassment in my job and having my complaints buried by white colleagues and supervisors. I experienced it when, after years of being beaten at home by a Black European who kept his vicious secret well hidden from the world outside our walls, I fought for a restraining order, and then a divorce, and then custody of our children. In each bid, the white judge treated me with contempt.

In a workplace with a famous name, and in an anonymous family court, my appeals to white people in positions of power for fairness and dignity traumatized me anew.

The same was true when, left with nothing following my divorce, I became homeless. In Massachusetts shelters for women who had fled their abusers, I was called “it” by white staffers. I was served rancid food by white staffers and told I could leave if I didn’t like it. I was denied basic human dignity by white staff who were there, I would have thought, to offer emotional support.

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As a Black woman in Boston, I have learned to be hyper-vigilant, and this has made me chronically anxious. I feel unsafe where my safety should not be an issue, such as on public transportation. In the span of a few days last year, I was assaulted twice. On the MBTA, a white man pelted me with objects and called me the n-word. Fellow passengers looked away. On an otherwise empty city bus, another man sat too close to me, pressing my body into the window. He groped my arms and legs. I traveled a few stops before I summoned the courage and physical strength to push him off and flee the bus. I didn’t know if the white bus driver had seen my struggle, but he said nothing as I exited. My clothes stank of the man’s cheap cologne, and, once on the sidewalk, I burst into tears.

I called the MBTA several times to report the first incident. I gave up after a detective’s questions implied that I had somehow brought on the attack. For days, I remained in bed, buzzing with adrenaline, unable to sleep, feeling that to step outside of my apartment would be to put myself at risk all over again.

This is what racism does.

It’s all in my head, said my doctors, when I enumerated racism’s effects on my health. But I know better. When I can fall asleep, I wake with a jolt, ready to flee. My nightmares are ripped from the moments of my life, not only the most terrifying ones, but the smaller, cutting devastations. Like the time a white clerk followed me closely in a pharmacy and hissed into the back of my head that I could not afford anything in her store. Or the white woman in the dairy aisle at the start of the pandemic who ripped the last carton of milk from my hands, as though I should not be the one to go home with it.

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Everywhere I go, including in my own apartment, I feel unwelcome and unsafe. My fingers tingle. My heart races. My body aches all over. My fatigue feels ancient, as though it were present before I was born.

Racism erodes my health, and it steals my joy. The triumph of securing my first apartment in 2018 after years of homelessness was fleeting; my white corporate landlords served me an eviction notice before I had yet moved in. The eviction threats persist: The latest came in June despite the state moratorium on evictions that went into effect in April. I am Black and poor in a building that caters to white professionals. Is it a coincidence that my heat or hot water have gone out at least once a month for the past two winters? My legal advocate says, “they are trying to wear you down.” So I pay my rent early and keep meticulous records.

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Now, in the shadow of too many police killings of Black men and women, I worry not only for myself, but for my beautiful Black children. When I speak with them, I tell them to be careful. I tell them about my life. And I tell them that I’m tired.

Yvonne X. is a pseudonym to protect the author’s anonymity.