Sie Doesn't Let the Angry Black Woman Trope Define Her
I am mentally real because: I am honest about the need for mental health care among marginalized groups.
IN MY LEADERSHIP ROLES, I'VE HAD GUYS THAT ARE RACIAL MINORITIES SAY “OH, SIE IS ANGRY!” THIS PROMOTES THE ANGRY BLACK WOMAN STEREOTYPE AND THAT BLACK WOMEN ARE BITCHES. NO, I JUST LIKE TO GET THINGS DONE WELL, HAVE A "TYPE A" PERSONALITY, AND DON'T TOLERATE BULLSHIT.
Do you think mental health care is a social justice issue?
Yes, I believe mental health care is a social justice issue. I feel that everything in America is a social justice issue when it comes to minorities. Many minorities are living in super urbanized areas and some of them live in poverty. Systemic racism affects everything and we saw this with redlining and gerrymandering. With this being the case, many of our schools are underfunded and have fewer resources than affluent schools do like good counselors and school therapy. Also, within our communities we have a lot of stereotypical thinking about mental health such as, “Don't worry about it because everything will be okay” or “Just go to God about it.”
It is very true that many of the social ills we see in our communities are deliberate results of systemic racism. On a personal level, what messages about mental health did you receive growing up?
I didn't really receive any messages about mental wellness growing up. Culturally, I was raised African-American through my mom. My mom wouldn't confront issues and would act like bad things didn't exist. She would choose to ignore facts and reality to sort of survive or maintain her sanity. But, that is a false sense of sanity. So, there was a lot of denial and brushing things under the rug instead of having my feelings validated or talked about. I was told to take my problems to God instead of being encouraged to see a therapist.
How do you think not having a safe space to express your feelings affected you?
It affected me because now I ignore certain things and tell myself that they don't really affect me that much. For example, my brother suffers from the effects of using brain-altering drugs. So, he can't keep a job or pay his rent. He's just not a very good person. But, instead of facing all these realities, I just tell myself to ignore them. I need to focus on myself and what I need to do for school. Growing up, I also journaled a lot and I have been blessed with really good girlfriends throughout my life. If one left out of my life, another girlfriend came in at the right time. I also relied on my spirituality.
What advice do you have for other Black women regarding mental health ?
Whether in your personal or professional life, you truly cannot be successful without taking care of your mental health. We tend to be in a mode of survival: get through school, get a career, get a house and so many other things on our list. We end up not prioritizing our health. We try to go to the doctor for a physical every year but what about our mental health? Are we taking any breaks? Are you making sure, “You're up there upstairs?”
You should trademark that last phrase. Outside of mental health, what messages did you receive about being a Black woman in your household?
My mom always told me to never rely on a man. She said to always stand on our own two feet, make sure we are successful, get our own checks and never let a man hit us. She would show herself to be a false super woman because she tried to make it seem like she had everything under control all the time. But, really there were times when we were in financial distress and everything wasn't all together. I think showing that you can fall and get back up is a better message than acting like everything's okay when it is falling apart. I think you should always be real.
As a an adult, do the messages you received growing up show themselves in your life?
I'm still very independent and I want to be successful. I want to learn and get good grades on my own. I also don't rely on a man for any money. Instead, I rely mostly on myself and the government. In many ways, I act like a superhero myself and get a lot of work done.
As a veterinary student at a PWI (predominantly-white institution), what challenges have you faced as a Black-presenting woman?
In my leadership roles, I've had guys that are racial minorities say “Oh, Sie is angry!” This promotes the angry Black woman stereotype and that Black women are bitches. No, I just like to get things done well, have a "Type A" personality, and don't tolerate bullshit. I always pull off great events at my school and get faculty recognition as an individual for the work I complete. For example, at a recent event, I ended up hauling in four huge boxes of food by myself because my group members did not return any of my texts and calls asking for help. After all the hard work was done, I decided not to say anything to them about the situation. Even still, they kept saying how “mad” I was for not speaking to them about what happened.
The angry Black woman trope harms Black women and Black girls. Studies show that Black women are less likely to be believed as victims of sexual assault by law enforcement and Black girls are more likely to be disciplined and even arrested at school. It seems you are being vilified for the very behaviors that white boys and men are applauded for: leadership, tenacity and ambition. Not only do you go to a PWI, but you live in an area that is notoriously unwelcoming to people of color. How has living in this area affected your mental health?
It's different because at my undergrad school I was able to surround myself with a diverse group of friends. I probably had like two experiences of racial discrimination. But, where I live now, there have been more than about five incidents per semester against myself or a friend either on or off campus. One of those instances was not being served at a restaurant because of the color of our skin. My friend did post an online comment about our experience but the owner did not validate our experience. Instead, the owner tried to excuse the service for not being “timely.” Also, white guys come up to us and say that they've been with a Black woman before, Black people get thrown out of places and people will compare us to Black celebrities like Queen Latifah for no reason. There are places here you shouldn't go to because there are confederate flags up. Overall, it affects my mental health because it makes me angry and frustrated. As a minority, you learn to ignore it because you can't be successful if you're crying every day over a racist's stupid comments. You learn to vent and keep it moving.
Once you graduate, what plan will you have in place for your mental health care given how stressful practicing medicine can be?
Right now, I am benefiting from free mental health care provided by my school. My goal is to confront and heal from certain experiences I've been brushing underneath the rug by the time I graduate vet school. Realistically, I will not have time or be able to afford counseling because I will be in a lot of debt with high interest rates. When I do get to the point of being financially stable, I do have other things I want to check in with a therapist about. I'll definitely shop around for therapists. Also, I do realize that I mentioned earlier that you need to prioritize mental health care.
Having zero access to therapy due to financial restraints is a common misconception. Therapy comes in many forms such as free support groups in the community, online talk therapy and art therapy. Our resources page highlights some of these options and how to access mental health services at little to no cost. On the topic, what moved you to give talk therapy a try at your school?
I would say opening up to a close friend of mine. I realized there are things that I have to resolve within all my relationships: familial, romantic and platonic. I don't think we realize how much people hurt us, how much that hurt can affect how we view the world, and how this affects how we feel on a daily basis. My girlfriends had basically been my “therapists” all my life. You can talk to your girlfriends about things but they aren't mental health professionals. Eventually, you need to seek professional help in case your friends can't handle the situation or you need to get medication prescribed.
We don't turn to our friends who aren't licensed medical professionals to treat our diabetes, lupus or other chronic physical conditions. We shouldn't do this for chronic mental health conditions either. How has your experience with therapy been like so far?
The room and my therapist's voice are very soothing. She lets me talk and she listens to everything I have to say. She practices reflective listening. She told me after our first session that she noticed I kept bringing something up and that we needed to address it first. That something is my sleep deprivation. So, I was given the assignment to track what I did for the next couple of weeks to improve my sleep hygiene. This was helpful because I like tackling assignments and meeting expectations. Having a structure of meeting goals can really help to address your mental health.
Therapy comes in many forms and therapists apply various methods. Some therapists assign tasks and some don't. Some use diagnoses and others prefer not to label their patients' conditions. Overall, how did your upbringing shape the way you view being Black in today's world?
I grew up in northern and southeastern Virginia and PG County, Maryland. I also lived in Ghana as a child. Growing up, I was surrounded by Black professionals and was accustomed to seeing them. For instance, I had a strong and afrocentric Black fourth grade teacher. Nobody and nothing prepared me for going to a PWI. Growing up, I had a diverse groups of friends that were Hispanic, Indian, Black and mixed. So, when I went to college I made a similarly diverse group of friends. I don't like to see a world that is monochromatic or monotonous. When I worked with a mobile vaccination clinic during grad school, I was able to work with a male Ethiopian and female African-American doctor. I also didn't think to look up statistics on the veterinarian work force prior to vet school but now I know it is only about 2.1% Black. Personally, I don't look at my skin color as something that is a detriment. I'm going to go in and my work is going to speak for itself because I know who my God is. Okurrrrr!
Okurrrr! How can our readers reach you?
Feel free to follow me at @traviesie on instagram.