Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dealing with the stress of being an African American

July 23, 2007 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) IT WAS SUNDAY afternoon. My husband and I had been for a short bike ride and we’d stopped at the grocery store to pick up something to cook for dinner. I begged off going into the store and waited for him in the car.

I opened the car door, basking in the sun and the Latin jazz rhythms on KCSM radio station.

I’d been sitting there for maybe 10 minutes. Other shoppers had come and gone. A woman got out of her SUV and started walking toward the store. A white woman. She saw me sitting in the car and turned back, pushing the remote button to lock her car. She proceeded into the store.

Seeing me and locking her car may have been completely unrelated. She may have been planning to lock it and just happened to look in my direction before she did. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling she had seen me, an African American sitting in a car, and decided she’d better lock her doors.

I had the urge to say something to her. For a moment, I could feel myself getting angry. “I’m not going to let some idiot ruin this beautiful day,” I thought. But I looked at her when she returned to her car. And clearly, I didn’t forget the incident.

It was a classic example of mundane extreme environmental stress, so named by Grace Carroll, a longtime Oakland resident, who holds a doctorate in the sociology of education and last year published a booklet “M.E.E.S. and Me: Musings of a Mad Matriarch.”

Black people live in a different social reality than the majority,” she said. “Minute things happen every single day that put us in a mindset. And we have so many more important things to think about. Dealing with it is stressful.”

Part of the stress is not knowing for sure. Was the woman locking her door because she thought an African-American woman (albeit with silver hair) was a threat? Or was she simply locking her door as usual?

Carroll said she is convinced the higher incidence and greater severity of illnesses among African Americans is linked to this daily stress. Indeed, in 2005 a report presented to the American Heart Association linked increased risk of cardiovascular disease in African-American women with discrimination.

“I wanted to give it a name,” Carroll said. “I wanted something to use in public discourse. We don’t have safe places to talk about race. Either it’s ‘You’re paranoid. Everything is about race.’ Or it’s, ‘You’re a racist.”‘

She published the original, academic version based on empirical studies of various groups in 1998 under the title “Environmental Stress and African Americans: The other side of the moon.”

“But the book was so expensive,” she said. “I was embarrassed it cost so much. I wanted to get it in the hands of people who could use it and benefit from it.”

She decided to re-publish it as a booklet, something a person could read on the plane or at lunch. She used the stories told in the empirical studies rather than the data.

She ended up with an accessible and useful booklet clearly grounded in solid academic research.

One section looks at the ways people respond to M.E.E.S., including overachievement, suppressing the incidents, self-devaluation, developing anti-white attitudes, pro-black attitudes, identifying with the majority culture, anger and hopelessness.

In a particularly helpful section, Carroll explores ways people can protect and defend themselves against the random incidents. It starts with acknowledging the stress. “He who conceals his disease cannot be cured,” she quotes a saying from Ethiopia. She advises parents to educate themselves and their children about history so they understand the context of events happening today.

As coping strategies, African Americans can increase their skills, autonomy, create safety nets, focus on unity and at the same time embrace cultural diversity. Carroll throws in physical health and spiritual connections to round out the list.

Each recommendation is thoroughly explained and introduced with an African proverb.

The booklet is organized to help people work through various “M.E.E.S.” scenarios, analyzing the feelings, thoughts and actions inspired by the incident and identifying coping strategies. Since it was published, Carroll has used it to conduct several interactive workshops. She established a MySpace page so young people can get information about the book, myspace.com/mees—musings, which she said has already gotten 1,500 hits.

“We can’t continue to operate under the stress. We have to find the strategies and have the public discourse,” Carroll said. “I think of it (the booklet) as a tool.”

By Brenda Payton

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