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Welcome. You are here to learn about being an effective ally.
You may have many reasons why you picked up this book. Maybe you’ve been moved by the suffering of people of color at the hands of police. Maybe you’ve seen the impact of racism on friends of color and want to do more. Maybe you want to more fully live your values of equity and justice.
Engaging in allyship work can be profoundly transformational to you as an individual. It can help you develop skills such as being honest and direct in a conflict, listening deeply to others who are different from you, and sharing leadership. It can help you start stripping off layers of the colonizer mentality and bring you into a more peaceful and loving relationship with the world around you. It can help you accept and even love the parts of yourself you’ve been taught need to be shamed or hidden. It can help you let go of the pursuit of materialism and welcome in love, friendship, celebration, connection, and authenticity. It can deepen your spirituality or bring in a different spiritual dimension to your life.
To achieve allyship, we will have to talk about some difficult things. I ask that you stay committed to the process. When we are healing from things that cause us or others harm, the initial part of the journey is very hard. It takes a lot of courage to decide to be someone different from what you have been taught. I am invested in guiding you through this work because most often change happens when we are feeling uncomfortable.
We are at a global tipping point but to be successful, the movement needs White people to tackle racism. A colleague, Mercy Quaye, founder of the Narrative Project, always says, “Racism is not a problem created by people of color, it is a White person’s problem, so White people must take ownership in fixing it.” Unfortunately, some White people are still trapped by traditions of being beneficiaries of systemic racism. Imagine if each White citizen who reads this book decided to dedicate themselves to racial justice work. A completely different quality of life would be possible to achieve. The difficulty in shedding the layers is more than worthwhile. When you ally the right way, you can literally help change the world. But the key word here is right. For allies to be successful, all efforts are to be grounded in anti-racism, accountability, and creating space for people of color.
In the book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem (2017) eloquently illustrates that long before White people began hurting Black people, they were brutalizing one another, dating back to the 1500s. Citizens were burned at the stake, a tradition that continued on into the transatlantic slave trade. Europeans often beat, kidnapped, chained, and tortured one another, sometimes even pulling human bodies apart, a sadistic technique used as an official instrument of punishment. In fact, during the Middle Ages, violence was a form of entertainment. Menakem remarks that it is no wonder tortured Europeans fled to America because they were either traumatized by the savagery or by watching vulgar brutality. In the 16th century, when the English arrived in North America, Menakem (2017, 81) states that “they brought much of their resilience, much of their brutality and, I believe, a great deal of their trauma with them.” This was clearly observed in the similarity of their cruelty toward slaves. Like in their native countries, Europeans in the New World adapted the long-standing and violent White-on- White practices.
Menakem (2017) goes on to state that in the 16th century, the concept of Whiteness and race was invented to establish “White-body supremacy.” Europeans unable to process their own trauma displaced it on Black and Native bodies to justify the colonization, abuse, and enslavement of people of color (POCs). Race is a concept created for the sole advantage of White people to gain dominance over darker peoples instead of causing friction between one another. For this reason, many White people have little regard for Black people and often forget that they are human. As tradition holds, White people desired to colonize the mind of POCs and formalize a culture of White superiority, creating a sense of hatred for Black people.
Generation after generation of Black bodies have stored up White trauma, now coined “race-based trauma”, which originated from intense survival energy. Menakem (2017, 88) emphasizes that “[r]ace is a myth, but a myth with teeth and claws. Institutions, structures, beliefs, and narratives have been centered around it. Until we recognize it for the collective delusion it is, it might as well be real.” As an ally, it is important to do the personal work around the cycle of violence. It is important to recognize the power structures in your own family and make a connection as to how anger is projected to the powerless in society. Researchers of violence have noted that it is the internalization of hatred that often leads people to project their hatred and violence onto others. This same theory holds true in interactions between White people and other races. White racism is anchored in power and control, just like the cycle of violence in families. The batterer, and often the victim, are in denial, and there are three phases: tension building, acute explosion, and honeymoon. Fear will, most often, cause those in the White dominant culture to project their irrational perceptions onto POCs (Wilson 2011). To carry on racist ideology White people, just like batterers, have to convince themselves that POCs are less than and not worthy.
In actuality, it is the hatred of themselves and their own insecurities that fuel racism.
My professional experience leads me to conclude that White people’s fear and trauma are the root of racism. Racism has been such a huge issue in America over the years that some psychiatrists have advocated for making racism a psychiatric disorder. However, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) said that a “social issue” should not be medicalized (Thomas 2014). Although racism is learned behavior, it still demonstrates a projection of delusional and unwarranted hatred toward POC (Bell 2004). Although the APA has never recognized extreme racism as a psychotic disorder, the issue was raised more than 30 years ago by a group of Black psychiatrists (Poussaint 2002). After several racist killings during the civil rights era, these doctors believed that bigotry had to come from some form of psychosis. However, the step toward a mental health diagnosis was denied due to racism being normalized as a cultural issue rather than psychological (Bell 2004).
Research following World War II demonstrated that anxiety and impulsivity were associated with social bias (Sullaway and Dunbar 1996). The push is for the recognition that anyone who acts harshly or wants to eliminate a group of people based on the color of their skin meets the criteria for a delusional disorder. This would ultimately mean that White people struggling with racism are actually battling a mental illness. Treating racism as normal and not pathological further aids in this disease going untreated. Racism inflicts psychological and physiological pain on people, communities, societies, and the world. It centers on irrational belief systems about a social group and impulsive actions, sometimes leading to mass killings, murder, torture, and death as a result of those belief systems (Rollock and Gordon 2000). Whether recognized as a clinical disorder or not, racism erodes and damages the mental health status of people struggling with it, namely, White people. Seeing racism as a mental illness could further prevent tragic outcomes geared toward POCs.
In many ways, writing about racism and what it has done to White people and racial trauma and what it has done to POCs is personal for me. I truly believe it was the impetus not just in choosing a career in psychology but also in developing a surgeon-like focus on understanding how the social construct of race has evolved, how White people have been the sole benefactors of its creation, how POCs have suffered under its regime, and ultimately how we dismantle it. I wanted to share when it became apparent to me that racism not only existed but that it also was alive and thriving and how two very different attitudes of two professors impacted my education.
URBAN TRAUMA IS RACISM—SURVIVOR
As an immigrant growing up in Brooklyn in a mixed-race neighborhood, during a time when kids played in the street until dark and everyone else’s parent was also your parent, I always felt that there was a strong sense of community. It’s ironic to say this about New York, but in many ways, I was sheltered from the harsh race-based realities that lived past the borders of my ’hood. What I experienced daily were kids who looked like me and families that looked like mine: a tossed salad of many different people and cultures who all came together during morning rush hour at the corner bodega. Everyone seemed to fit in. It was not a utopia; New York City in the 1980s was not a joke, but it felt familiar and like family.
Later, as an undergraduate student, I was fascinated with how people of African descent survived centuries of brutalization and still survived. I took every African and Caribbean studies course offered. This burning question became one of the reasons I wanted to examine human behavior and, after obtaining my undergraduate degree, went to Florida A&M University, a historically Black College and University, to study community psychology from the most elite Black psychologists in the country. As a poor, marginal- ized immigrant woman of color who began to elevate in the educational ladder, I began to experience firsthand the ugliness of racism, and I clearly understood how protected, disillusioned, and naive I was about this country’s dark past.
During graduate school at a predominantly White institution (folks of color call these types of schools PWIs), I encountered two types of professors that impacted my life. One was inclusive, open to a diversity of ideas, and supportive. The other was tough, strict, inflexible, and somewhat callous.
The second, a man, demonstrated high expectations from his students, and his demeanor was stern. Although psychology is considered by many as a soft science, this professor was not warm and fuzzy at all. Despite his exterior, I actually found him to be endearing, perhaps because in many ways he reminded me of my father. Although they looked nothing alike, my professor was White, they showed up to the world in the exact same way. For that reason, I was used to the high expectations he held for his students, as well as the feeling of “not good enough” that came along with it. Because I grew up in a very patriarchal family, I normalized this behavior because he was a man, but then the interactions became more and more degrading and insulting over time. I continued justifying his behavior, almost as a survival tactic, and placed the responsibility of those negative and discrediting interactions on myself; this way of coping felt familiar because it is exactly what I did with my dad. It is true that if we do not heal from past pain, patterns simply continue to repeat themselves, skipping from body to body like a disease.
I never considered that he did not like me because of who I was, the color of my skin, and what I represented. Oftentimes, despite the Whitesplaining that happens around this topic, POCs do not initially consider race as the reason for negative interactions with White people—that is, until there is a catalyst event. For me, that moment was a midterm grade I received from this professor in my Theories of Psychotherapy class.
It was the lowest grade in my entire academic career. I was a high-achieving student who consistently carried a high honors/dean list grade point average (GPA) and above in my graduate program, obtaining As in the toughest courses in my field. This class was the cornerstone of psychology. If I was unable to pass this class, it raised the question, why was I there in the first place? How would I be able to accurately do therapy with my patients and create adequate treatment plans? My imposter syndrome was at an all-time high.
I bravely made an appointment to meet with the professor after class. I coached myself the entire morning about how I was going to approach this conversation. I would be humble but motivated. I would want to learn from him and the way he likes students to respond to questions in his exams. I would study what characteristics he liked to see in his students and learn to deliver on those qualities as often as possible. I would ask him if there was anything I could do to bolster my grade in the class, how I could study harder and more efficiently, because only two exams were administered the entire semester. I was ready for this conversation. As a kid growing up in a tough neighborhood, one’s emotional intelligence typically falls in the superior range. Studying my professor was as important as the grade.
That afternoon, I walked into his office ready to receive constructive feedback. As a graduate student, you get accustomed to this type of feedback because it happens quite a bit, in nearly all areas of study. Before I was able to say hello and open the conversation with small talk, he asked me to sit down and began to speak: Maysa [pronounced incorrectly; he never cared to learn how to say it right, and I stopped trying to correct him], this university is very prestigious. We only accept the best and brightest students. We rank among the top schools in graduate pro- grams of psychology and accept only four students per year. We look for a certain pedigree of students [code for White], and frankly, it is clear to me that you are not from that pedigree. Your performance in my class is substandard, and I just cannot fathom what kind of psychologist you will be if you are unable to pass my psychotherapy class. I seriously think you should reconsider this program, this university, and this field of study. Perhaps you should do something different and open up your slot to a more deserving student.
As the words came out of his mouth, I felt sick to my stomach. I did everything I could to hold back the tears. I was devastated. But most important, he confirmed my worst fear: that I was not good enough. I was, in fact, an imposter, and he had figured me out.
Before I broke down into a pool of hysterical tears, I got up, said nothing, and walked out of his office. I ran into one of the rooms in the clinic and cried for what seemed like hours. I was newly married and called my husband, barely able to speak, trying to get the words out, but only being able to repeat over and over that I was a failure. This moment was critical for me. What my husband said in that instance became a defining moment in my life and taught me a lesson about the kind of person that you need on your team. With love, compassion, and clarity, he asked me to calm down and tell him exactly what happened.
Once he got the gist (my husband is not one that needs every single detail, blow by blow), he said, “Maysa [pronounced correctly], you are strong, you are smart, and you can do this. Let’s look at the data. What are your current grades in the program?”
I responded, “All As.”
He sighed. “OK, what does that data tell you?” Pause. “Does it confirm what this professor is saying about you?”
Still sobbing in the background, I replied, “No.” “So why would you believe him?”
Another long pause as I processed and calculated and then responded, “Because he is right. I don’t have the pedigree. My parents were not doctors, they are not alums of the university, nor do they give thousands of dollars to its endowment. I am a street kid, an immigrant, a nobody. How could I have ever thought that I would become a psychologist? I am just a dreamer. These kinds of achievements do not happen for people like me.”
Again, with a thoughtful response, he said, “Who cares what your pedigree is? You need to show them that it doesn’t matter what walk of life you are from, as long as you are intelligent, dedicated, and able to compete at the same level as those other White grad students. You can do this! You got this! Now wipe those tears, get up and go back in there, and tell that professor that he is wrong and that you are not going anywhere and you will prove him wrong.”
I thanked him for his encouragement, for making me feel empowered during a very devastating moment for me, and for his unconditional love. We hung up. I bravely got up, eyes and face swollen from crying, sniffling as I tried to clear the congestion and regulate my breathing. I stood up, firm, chest wide open, posture straight, and with a conviction of determination that this White man will not tear me down. I thought about every ancestor who was denigrated physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I thought about what they fought for and were subsequently killed for. I allowed my mind to freely enter into a space of calling onto my ancestors for strength and protection as I entered this psychological war zone. I readied myself, putting one foot in front of the other, with those small steps being the only goal.
My feet directed me back into the professor’s office. It was an out-of-body experience. He looked up, peering from his reading glasses, as I entered the arch of his doorway. I stood there, paralyzed from the neck down, heavy, heart beating a million miles a minute, he said, “What do you want now? I thought our conversation was over.”
I managed to say five words, just five: “You will not break me!” Then I left his office, left the building, exited the school parking lot, and cried all the way home.
In full transparency, I spent a few days at home, not going to class, full of shame, and declining toward a very rocky downward spiral. I didn’t eat, didn’t get out of bed, and spent those few days feeling sorry for myself. I realized at some point that there would only be one outcome: either I win or he wins. The way things were looking, he had the advantage. The joy and passion I felt for psychology had been taken from me.
I was lost after this situation, but there was one professor in the department who noticed. Her allyship was still in development back then as she herself was struggling with being an “other” as a White lesbian woman. I shared with her my situation, and she was able to empathize with what I had gone through. I noticed that she was more inclusive, being one of the only professors who actively sought out students of color to work in her lab. She was also very supportive of thesis and dissertation topics that centered on diverse populations and cross-cultural psychological research, even though that was not her area of specialty. She was very nurturing and caring, and she provided moral support. This professor was aware of the adversities I overcame to become a first-generation graduate student. She encouraged me to use those survival tactics to develop thick skin and push forward. I also noticed she did many low-key things and sometimes took risks to make a difference for students of color. Throughout my graduate program, there were some subtle ways she made a difference, without necessarily positioning herself as a hero.
In spite of good intentions, her allyship was flawed. For example, she was unable, due to her own oppression, to advocate for me and challenge institutional bias and discrimination. Her recommendations often left me alone to cope with the situation, as it placed the responsibility on me, as the person harmed by racism, to solve the problem. As an ally, it would have been much more helpful if she would have challenged the male professor as a colleague, spoken up against this type of behavior in departmental meetings, created a safe space for me to process my grievances, and provided me with clear steps on the policies and procedures for students who encounter discrimination. Even so, her actions absolutely made a positive difference to me.
With the support of my allied professor, I was able to find my grit and determination, and I went back to school and finished my degree, graduating summa cum laude with a 3.906 cumulative GPA. I received a B− in that psychotherapy class, the only B in my entire graduate career. I already knew I had to work twice as hard to compete with my White counterparts in addition to having to prove myself to a racist professor. Later, I was accepted by the Yale School of Medicine, Child Study Center for my pre- and post-doctoral training. Only one other student before me, who ironically was also a POC and an immigrant, was selected for this prestigious training program.
Although it was satisfying to have proved him wrong by successfully graduating top of my class and putting our university on the map for trainees gaining acceptance to an Ivy League fellowship, this was an underwhelming win for me. I moved on, and in 2013, I received a call from the university alumni office informing me that I had been selected for their most highly regarded Alumni Award. In fact, it was the first time anyone from the School of Social Sciences had been selected for this award, which was typically reserved for candidates from the School of Medicine or the Law School. I was also the first woman of color to receive this award.
I remember how proud my White ally professor looked when she witnessed me getting this award, and I wondered if she had nominated me. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing her, feeling her allyship, the first I had ever experienced. At that moment; I knew she had done something good not just for me but for other students of color too. As for the psychotherapy professor, he didn’t attend the awards ceremony, but it did not matter because I knew my ally professor and I had proved him wrong. I did have the pedigree to be an outstanding psychologist and to make incredible contributions to the field of psychology. My ally professor, me, and this book are just a few of many examples of why true allyship matters so much.
Moments like this one with both of these professors, over 15 years ago now, seem like a blip on the radar of my life. I can remember the situation so well because it was such a deep emotional injury for me. As I retell this story, I am clear in my maturity, of the role that both racism and allyship occupied during those few years until I graduated. This situation so early in my development as a psychologist allowed me to take away meaningful lessons, many of which I hope to share with you in order to bring clarity to a highly complex human flaw and ways for White people to start changing it. In the last two decades, racial trauma has become the central point of scientific study in my professional career. My research has focused on racial identity and racial socialization to understand the role of resilience in the Black community. My career as a psycholo- gist, much like society, took many twists and turns in my quest to identify the intersectionality between race and trauma. Most of all, the mental health of POCs was a complex puzzle that I needed to piece together. In my first book, Urban Trauma: A Legacy of Racism (Akbar 2017), I outline the psychological and biological damage enacted by enslavement and how structural racism from poverty, overcrowded housing, poor physical and mental health, despair, violence, crime, and drug abuse are at the center of our urban communities as a result of historical oppression. These conditions create a type of chronic race-based toxic stress that leads to dysfunctional characteristics and behaviors that lie beneath the surface of many diverse peoples and communities. In combination, these components genetically variate a POC’s DNA and thereby how they show up in the world. As my career continues evolving, I am starting to see a semblance of what this puzzle may look like. I keenly understand the importance of healing for POCs through acknowledgment, validation, and recognition for the harm that was done by White people. Equally important is the work White people must do, both on themselves and in their families and communities. This work will begin to create a new world that dismantles racism one system at a time, together. It is my hope that if you are a White ally reading this book, you have this same conviction in your pursuit of racial justice.
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Maysa Akbar, PhD, ABPP is a groundbreaking psychologist, best-selling author, and policy advocate. She obtained her degree from Yale University where she serves as an Assistant Clinical Professor. Dr. Akbar is a distinguished thought leader and expert in racial-trauma, allyship, equity, diversity, and inclusion. She is the author of Urban Trauma which introduced a framework and treatment model addressing race-based trauma in POC. Dr. Akbar is the founder and CEO of Integrated Wellness Group, a psychotherapy practice specializing in treating race-based trauma with unparalleled diversity and expertise in clinical staffing since 2008. Nationally, Dr. Akbar is sought after to lead agencies in their efforts to promote antiracism and advance racial equity. Internationally, as a representative for APA at the United Nations, Dr. Akbar drives racial equity into global conversations.