‘Why don’t they go back’: the increasing psychological toll of racism in the Trump era
Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite has seen a string of children of color at her Newton clinic in recent months with symptoms of anxiety: insomnia, hypervigilance, a fear that they are not safe at home or that when they return from school, a parent will have disappeared.
When she presses for more details, the psychiatrist often hears a list of racial terrors, both local and national: swastikas found in the bathroom at school, racist threats against classmates, President Trump’s just last week presiding over a crowd of mostly white supporters in Greenville, N.C., chanting “send her back! send her back!” about Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
“I’ve rarely had anyone come and say, ‘I’m stressed because of racism,’ ” Christian-Brathwaite said. Instead, kids tell her, “I can’t sleep. My grades are dropping,” and when she hears their specific concerns, she understands that racism is one of the triggers.
As a black woman, she feels the strain, too.
“I haven’t watched the news for a number of days because I’ve found it really, really stressful,” she said. “Some nights I find that I can’t sleep. Some days I have a headache and I can’t explain why.”
As Trump doubles down on attacks against the four women of color in Congress known as “The Squad,” which includes Omar and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, some people of color in the Boston area describe a psychological toll that the episodes, and Trump’s frequent overt hostility, have had on their daily lives — not just this month, but in the many months since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
Some have tried to guard themselves against the everyday tumult coming from the White House; others have become more vocal in politics. Some have found a grim silver lining, because the scourge of racism that some white people recently claimed had disappeared is now impossible to ignore or explain away. Many said it reminds them of other dark moments of personal and national history, when racial hostility and tension reared up.
“Some of it feels very familiar, and it just looks like another head of the same beast,” said Sharon Hinton, a 64-year-old former teacher. She said she has felt constantly under stress, with the urge to “go undercover” and not draw attention to herself.
A large body of research backs up her experience.
“We have now 20 years of research that connects racism with just about every mental health issue that has been studied,” said Monnica Williams, a professor and the director of the laboratory for Culture and Mental Health Disparities at the University of Connecticut. The effect of “vicarious racism” — seeing, for example, videos of police shootings of unarmed black men, or hearing chants of “Send her back!” — has not been studied as much, according to Jessica Graham-LoPresti, an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk University, but social media indicates the experience is certainly on the rise.
“People are being now not only exposed to their own experiences of racism, but they’re being vicariously exposed to everyone’s experience of racism,” she said, adding that patients often exhibit symptoms very similar to those from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as depression and social anxiety.
Finding individual solutions to a systemic problem can be daunting. One of the most useful tools that psychologists suggest is simply acknowledging the truth of what patients are seeing and feeling.
“The first piece of what I do with anyone who comes to my office is really validate them and say, ‘This is real,’ ” Graham-LoPresti said of her work as a practicing psychologist. “It’s reasonable to be having a mental health response.”
When Trump attacked the congresswomen on Twitter, asking “Why don’t they go back” to their countries (they are all American citizens), it was just the latest in what people of color say has felt like a relentless barrage of hostility from the White House: the threat of national ICE raids targeting migrant families; reports of squalid camps at the border where migrant families are detained; the president’s reported use of an expletive to refer to certain countries like Haiti, El Salvador, and some nations in Africa; his remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.; the executive action banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries ; and before his election, Trump’s personal attacks against a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage.
Katherine Hernandez, a security officer in Boston and a member of the Service Employees International Union local 32BJ, said when she first learned that Trump had won the election, she cried. Hernandez came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 15 and said she sometimes encountered people in those early years who didn’t think she belonged. They would tell her to “go back” to her country, just as Trump did to the congresswomen this month.
But faced with a hostile president, Hernandez said, she has been motivated to fight more vocally for immigrants, becoming active in her union and educating her co-workers about immigration.
“Right now, it’s all about knowing your rights,” she said.
Perhaps what has been most heartbreaking to some people of color is not that Trump’s words and actions are new, but instead precisely that they are old, part of what some thought was a bygone era of overt racism.
“There was a kind of illusion: We not only said we were post-racist, we said we were post-racial. Much of that was engendered by the election of the first black [president] in American history,” said the Rev. Ray Hammond of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Jamaica Plain. “At this point that is all gone.”
He sees a positive side to the dissolution of that collective state of denial, though. Now that the truth is out in the open, “we know what the work is that needs to be done.”
For some people of color, the Trump era has produced a reckoning not so much for them but for some of their white neighbors, who denied anything was wrong.
“I think it’s good in the sense that a lot of white folks didn’t believe me when I said I faced racism, and now they believe me,” said Christopher Huang, an Asian-American photographer and activist.
Some said it was not just about what Trump says or does in 2019, but also about what he dredges up from the past.
Sara Orozco, 56, has been remembering being bullied in her Cuban neighborhood in Miami, where white people from the surrounding streets would drive by in their cars, swinging bats at their mailboxes screaming, “Go home, spics!” Frantz Paillant Jr., 37, whose family is from Haiti, recalls the terrifying rumors that would run through Mattapan when he was a child that immigration officers were planning to show up to the local grocery store and round up undocumented people. Jason Johnson, 51, has been remembering visiting a used furniture store in Dallas after college, and finding the store owner waiting for him with his hand on a gun.
“You live a life kind of experiencing those things, and you can’t be shocked,” said Johnson, who is black.
Even if Trump’s words and actions are not shocking to many people of color, they have still left their marks.
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church and a longtime racial justice activist, said he is frustrated that his own children have to inherit a world that doesn’t seem much improved from the one he grew up in.
“They are experiencing things that I heard about and read about my parents’ going through in the time of segregation,” he said.
Aisha Veras, a 17-year-old Hispanic woman who is entering her senior year of high school, echoed Brown’s sentiments. She said she was once naive about the long history of racism in this country, but is no longer.
“It sucks to know that your grandparents could have probably gone through the same thing that you’re going through now,” she said.