Deep Dive: “Let’s Talk About Black Women and Mental Health”

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum

 

Drs. Catherine Squires, Rachel Hardeman, and Taiyon Coleman, with KRSM radio manager Andrea Pierre at the June 2 Changemakers Alliance forum “Let’s Talk About Black Women and Mental Health”


Andrea Pierre, station manager of KRSM radio, moderated a conversation in the Changemakers Alliance series called “Let’s Talk About Black Women and Mental Health.” It featured author Dr. Taiyon Coleman, essayist Dr. Catherine Squires, and Dr. Rachel Hardeman, director of the Center for Anti-Racism Research and Health Equity at the University of Minnesota. Hardeman had recently been named to the 2024 Time list of “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

These highly accomplished Black women had a commonality that brought them together in the discussion, as Pierre named in her opening question:

“Being the only Black woman in your work and being highly visible but invisible. I’m wondering about the pressure in that — how isolating it is, and how painful that can be. How do you navigate this stress, stay grounded, and avoid the landmines?”

Coleman recommends figuring out what makes you feel good, which might be a music playlist, perhaps going back to Queen Latifah. “Whatever it is you can to do bring joy for you, not to let that isolation become your reality, because it’s easy for it to become the sun and you can’t see anything around it.”

Hardeman said she has been a work in progress this year — “the question you posed is exactly the one I’ve been grappling with personally, very much in the past year. Because we don’t get much done alone. I was the second Black professor hired on the tenure track in the school — the first one was hired almost 30 years prior. So for nearly 30 years, there was one person who was very isolated. Now there are four incredible Black female faculty in my department, but it’s been incredibly hard.

“In 2016, after Philandro Castile was killed by a police officer, I was sitting in my office devastated. Not because I knew him personally, but it was another loss of someone in our community, another life that ended too soon. I remember all of my colleagues buzzing around in the hallways, as though nothing had happened. And going into a faculty meeting and folks not understanding what was wrong with me. Not having anyone to turn to, for even a knowing glance or a hug. Nothing. I used that moment to write and to share what I still think is the responsibility of all of us to take on these big issues. So I put a lot of it into my work.”

Squires added that “too often, we’ve normalized us being the ‘only,’ and everybody else has a squad. That is not fair. Humans are social creatures.”

She also pointed out the brutal strain that comes from “the expectation of assimilation. That’s where I would direct people’s attention — that’s not on us. I was in conversation with a person who works in state government who said, ‘They recruit for diversity and then they onboard for assimilation.’ And that needs to change.”

The following are a few excerpts from the 1.5-hour conversation, co-sponsored by African American Leadership Forum and University of Minnesota Press, recorded at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

Find the full video here.

The Weariness of “Black Girl Magic”

Pierre pointed out the stress of living up to “Black girl magic, Black exceptionalism, the strong Black woman trope” — which adds pressure to seem to be perfect. She asked, in this post-pandemic, post–George Floyd murder time in Minnesota, how is everyone feeling?

Squires: I feel simultaneously very hopeful and determined, but also tired. I think the events of 2020 showed people a lot, and opened the door for lots of conversations. But I’m also dismayed that right now, it seems like a lot of that is shutting down out of fear. A few lawsuits have been filed against universities, against venture capital projects, to try and get more Black folks into the game. And we’re not even talking about changing the game, just getting people into the game. All of that is under fire that we haven’t seen since the early first attacks on affirmative action; it’s been a pretty constant roll back. At the same time, I see young people especially bringing things into the public domain with much less apology — just saying, ‘this isn’t working.’ 

We saw a complete collapse in 2020. We saw that the idea that the only thing that matters is profit and efficiency is not how to make a safe, healthy, thriving world. We need to stop treating people as disposable. Because it hurt everyone. It hurt some people more than others, but it hurt everyone. I hope that the shift in mindset — to talking about how to base a society on care versus profit and competition — is a conversation that is getting stronger. That makes me have hope.

Hardeman: My one word answer to the question is, I feel weary. The weariness comes from the fact that we are still not willing to be creative and innovative and do things differently based on what’s happened over the past several years and those lessons we’ve learned. Rather than take those learnings, or decide that we want to see the humanity in every single human being, we continue to fall back on what’s been the easiest. There are these incredible young folks trying to push those boundaries, and asking really hard questions, and making really important demands. I also worry about how they are protecting themselves. How are they making sure that they are safe if they want to speak out about Palestine on their university campus? How do we make sure we’re creating safe spaces for that to happen?

I also think we haven’t talked about the mental health toll and the stress that has been prevalent over the past few years. With the impact of George Floyd’s murder on the mental well-being of our communities, we actually haven’t done enough to make sure that everyone has access to mental health care that they need in order to heal and become whole. A lot of my weariness comes from knowing there are so many folks who need and deserve to be healthy, and we’re not there yet.

Coleman: I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I feel like my entire career in academia has been this schism of being a Black girl with the double-dutch trope giving you the nostril flare, and then trying to assimilate and say okay, I can play your game and my game. I got this education. I did everything you said I was supposed to do. And yet I’m still dealing with this BS. 

Here I am with five advanced degrees. I want to believe that bodies are not expendable. I want to believe that the system doesn’t require certain people to be left out and marginalized for other people to have — trying to continue to try to play a game that is rigged.

Hardeman: You just described the last five years of my career, particularly the last six months. Even when you think you’ve won, even when you have been named one of the most influential people in the world, it does not matter. If you are a Black woman talking about racism in the academy, they will still find a way to isolate you, to tell you that you are not good enough. You have to have a squad; folks who are going to say, ‘Hey, you haven’t eaten today’ or ‘You’re not looking good.’ There are so many things that make the difference between thriving and surviving.

Health Disparities Because of Racism

Coleman: My mama prematurely, like many Black women, died at age 49. Being ourselves, how do we build our worlds [so that] we can exist. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m trying to untie that knot and at least leave for my daughters and my son a different way of understanding and respecting what it means to be a Black woman in America. Above all else, do not compromise.

Squires: That’s the gift of healing, right? You heal not just yourself, but also generations to come. You provide a kind of Beacon. I said on this stage, and on Twitter, and in half the things I’ve written since I left the University, I will avenge all the gray hairs denied my ancestors. Because our deaths are part of the generators of wealth. We have to redefine well-being and wealth in order for people to understand that it is not a necessity for someone else to suffer for you to feel good.

We need people to understand how much their definition of their own success relies on putting other people down, relies on hierarchy, relies on ‘if I have something, somebody else has to have less.’ I’m married to a mathematician — those equations aren’t true. The world does not have to work that way.

Pierre: I often hear you talk about health care needing to take into consideration the environments and traumas of the patients: “Are they in a food desert? Is there clean water? Can they walk to school?” Do you see a pathway to medicine really becoming preventative? I feel like [the medical system] just puts a Band-aid on the problem a lot.

Hardeman: How do we shift to prevention? I think that’s the biggest issue. Right now our health care system is driven by profit. There are people in systems that want to do good, making sure folks are healthy, and have access to whatever they need. But that’s not true in every city, county, state. There are maternity care deserts. There are food deserts. There are so many communities going without.

We have to understand that health care doesn’t just happen within the hospital or clinic or health care delivery setting. A larger percentage of our health and well-being comes from the social environment in which we live. Whether we live near green space and safe trails to walk and exercise on — or do we live near an incinerator or some other chemical plant that may be pushing toxins into the air.

The Center for Anti-racism Research for Health Equity has found that Black [pregnant] women living in Minneapolis neighborhoods with a higher presence of police are at greater risk for having a preterm birth. That’s why we start with the premise that racism is a fundamental cause of health inequities. Uncovering all of the hidden ways that racism is embedded in our society is going to lead us towards health equity. For me, it’s been really important to build that evidence base so that we can put it in front of policymakers and community members — to have really important conversations. That includes thinking about who gets to buy a home or rent a home, and in what communities, and how do we undo the historical vestiges of redlining?

A professor in Michigan, Arline Geronimus, offered the weathering hypothesis in the early 1990s. She found that Black women are aging at a faster rate because of the stress due to racism. Stress hormones are flooding into our bodies — that fight or flight system is harmful, especially when it’s constant. You want cortisol to kick in if you’re being chased by a bear, because that’s going to tell you to run and save yourself. But to have those stress hormones flooding your body on a daily basis is harmful. We’re seeing Black women at the age of 45 or younger facing chronic issues, like Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. Then you’re accessing a health care provider who may not understand the impact that racism and inequities have had over the life course.

Everything for me starts with a history of the 400-plus years of how racism has been embedded in every institution and system that has been built. I’m also not naive enough to think two or three online trainings are going to be enough. We wouldn’t allow a physician to practice without passing anatomy or physiology; we have to do the same when it comes to the impact of racism on health. A lot of the work we’re doing is to require that to happen in medical education at all levels.

It’s driven by research. We looked at 1.8 million births across 15 years and found that Black infants who were cared for by a white physician during the newborn hospitalization phase are twice as likely to die than if they were cared for by a Black physician.

Today’s Political Climate

Pierre: In the current political climate, seeing how laws are being changed in places like Florida that are affecting what you can teach, how concerned are you about how things are right now in the United States?

Squires: It’s galling to think of how much hypocrisy there is around the freedom to learn and the freedom to speak. When you have kids reading and learning about people of different cultures, different races, different backgrounds, you are humanizing us.

When the Civil Rights movement desegregated spaces, like swimming pools, many white communities decided not simply to stop attending the public pool anymore — they filled them in with concrete so nobody could use it. That kind of viciousness is what I see today in the book bans and the so-called anti-woke laws. It’s that viciousness that says, ‘My sense of self is so disconnected from any human vision of you. I want to destroy you. I want to erase you if you try to do anything but be subservient to me.’  

It’s absolutely terrifying to me that people cloak this under the words that they’re trying to protect their children from feeling bad about themselves. That they’re okay with our children being shot in the street. If even a fun book that humanizes a Black or brown child is seen as a threat to their child’s sense of self, to me that just says you want your child to feel superior to my child.

Coleman: Imagine if we all shifted it together, the kind of pressure we would bring to bear to create something new. Anti-Blackness is global. This notion that there’s always a Black body that needs to be at the bottom of the hierarchy is global.

Hardeman: We’re seeing this backlash. It’s not just Florida and Texas — it’s creeping up right here in this very state we live in. I try to remind myself every day that it is happening because we’re on to something. I think it’s going to get worse as we get closer to November in this next election. For me, it’s figuring out the collective strategy. What are we are going to do, collectively, to both protect the work that’s already been done, but also not lose ground?

Squires: Co-conspirators are so important. I think some people have taken themselves out of the game, because they have an oversimplified idea of what it means to let other people speak their truth. Some people don’t speak out for fear of saying it wrong, or overstepping. We all make mistakes. But silence can be as violent as the people who are throwing the invectives and trying to do the book bans, because it manufactures a sense that the loudest people in the room are the only people in the room and that they are the true majority. That is exactly how fascism works.

Sisterhood 

Pierre: After Covid, and the uprising, the sisterhood that I’ve been able to grow within my community of Black women has been something beautiful to witness. I don’t think it was as strong before.

Hardeman: My sisterhood starts with my twin sister Simone. About a month ago, I was not in a good place. I was supposed to go to lunch with my squad — my biological sister and four or five other girlfriends who get together for a self-care lunch every month on a Friday. Sometimes we throw a massage in there. We have cocktails and spend the afternoon together. I told my sister I could not go because a bunch of really disturbing things had happened at work and I was distraught. I said I can’t go because I can’t pretend that I’m okay, and I don’t want to talk about it.

[Shortly], my sister and our squad were at my door with food and wine. We five Black women literally sat in my bed, brainstorming, supporting, praying, loving me. It was one of the first times for me where I actually released and let myself be cared for and loved. It reinforced for me that we can’t do this work in isolation. We have to have our people to pick us up. The rest of that weekend, there was somebody there every day. Phone calls. It’s something I will remember forever. I’m also grateful that my daughter got to see how that played out so that when she needs her squad, she’s going to have it.

Squires: It’s so important to have your squad. Being one of the first and the only amongst a very small group of Black professors at the University of Minnesota, it was part of my own practice to create spaces for us to come together. When we recruited the dean of the Humphrey School, Nisha Botchwey, I said, ‘I’m going to gather some people for you to meet, so you can see that we’re actually here, because that’s really important for people to know there is a place to land.’ That group has continued to meet and morph in different ways.

When I made my decision to leave, I didn’t want her to feel like I was abandoning her. That was probably the only thing that kept me there as long as I did, to help her transition. It was a beautiful, bittersweet moment when I told her that I was going to leave. We both cried. She knew exactly why I was leaving and why it was healthy for me. It made it so much easier for me to make the transition.

Audience Participation

Audience members with questions included a Montessori teacher in Saint Paul, who mentioned a journal article about how teachers can prepare Black, brown, and indigenous children, to fortify them for getting through the educational system. The audience member said she was struck by the fact that Black women with doctorates have lower life expectancies than white women who did not graduate from high school.

Hardeman, who specializes in reproductive health care research, responded that there are high adverse birth outcomes for Black women with degrees compared to white women across the board. “We have to recognize that socioeconomic status and education is not going to save us. It is undoing structural, institutional, systemic racism, as well as internalized racism.”

Squires responded that the system has been failing lots of students — including students with disabilities, queer students, and high-performing students who have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and isolation. “I think it is the same question for young kids as PhD students: Where is their sense of community coming from?,” she said. “If you’re overly dependent on a predominantly white educational institution for your sense of belonging, and you’re a Black or brown kid, that’s a recipe for disaster. Do you have enough safe spaces? Do you have enough affirming spaces? Do you have enough windows and mirrors in your life outside of school if your school’s not doing a good job with that, to make up for some of the harm you’re going to get?”

Squires said it was important, when she was growing up into semi-integrated schools in the 1970s, to see her parents and others fight to keep their neighborhood school open. “We lost the fight; the school got closed,” she said. “But seeing them fight for us was so important. That memory got me through a lot of really ugly moments of schooling. I loved to learn, but I also hated school.”

She suggested it is important for kids to know that the adults are trying to correct the system. 

On House Fires and Zombie Brains

Another audience member — who recently resigned a director position in diversity, equity, and inclusivity — talked about the concern of what seems to be an apocalyptic era.

A documentary was mentioned, “Lowndes County And The Road To Black Power.” In it, civil rights movement leader Ruby Sales says, “We just wanted to have what they had. We just wanted to vote. But we never stopped to ask ourselves what it meant to join a house that was already on fire.”

Hardeman suggested that people can do two things simultaneously. “I can see that the house is on fire, but I’m working to put it out, too. Because where else are you going to run to? I think Covid taught us that. I also like to take it to a spiritual level. We’re connected, whether we want to realize it or not. The lie is that we’re separated.”

Squires brought up Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, Emergent Strategy, who said “sometimes she feels like she’s living in some other ancestor’s dreams. That dream didn’t include her, or it included her only as a subordinate. It  brings to mind that unless we start to imagine what we want, we will continue to live out the nightmare that someone else imagined for us. I think of all the brilliance in this room, and all the brilliance next to me, and the way that folks are reimagining what could be.”

She quoted Toni Cade Bambara as saying, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Squires suggested that it is everyone’s role to make the image of the revolution “so beautiful that people are no longer afraid of change.” 

Squires ended the discussion on a humorous note: “People are gripping onto these zombie identities. We have to say, ‘Don’t eat brains. Use your brain. Come on. We need all the brains we can get.’”


Recommended Reading

Taiyon Coleman’s “Traveling Without Moving: Essays From a Black Woman Trying to Survive in America” (University of Minnesota Press, 2024)

 

Derek Bell on the Brown v Board of Education decision, Harvard Law Review, 2020

The district no longer operated a dual school system separated by race; instead, it operated a single, virtually all-Black, under-resourced school system that funneled children into the criminal legal system.  In civil rights and the criminal legal system, I was fighting the same fight as my forebearers with similarly racist results. So, as Bell posed, “Now what?” For the answer, I turn to Bell’s theory of interest convergence: that the rights of Black people only advance when they converge with the interests of white people.

 

 

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