Series 29: For the Love of Black Lives | Episode 06
Centering Mental Health & Self-Care in Black America, with Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes
Cultivating a healthy mind is essential for our entire well-being. Psychologist and theologian Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes joins us For the Love of Black Lives series to help us unpack how the anxiety and trauma carried through generations of Black Americans affects the flourishing of communities of every stripe (and newsflash: the trauma we experience can be passed down through four generations after us). For so long, Black women have been praised as “strong,” and they absolutely are. But when we only view Black women as unshakeable “superwomen,” we take away their right to vulnerability, their right to care for themselves, and their right to be cared for by someone else. And instead, we hand them a standard that’s impossible to achieve—which, as anyone knows who’s tried to achieve something that can’t be attained, causes shame and depression. Dr. Chanequa describes the effects of living in a community where anxiety is normal for everyone. As she says, “I was never taught to think of what I had as anxiety, even though now I realize, on both sides of my family, there’s anxiety.” She explains why it’s vital for Black women and men to have access to Black mental healthcare providers, so clients can feel truly seen and heard, and receive the true care they need. And above all, Dr. Chanequa reminds us that every Black woman, child, and man is worthy of self-care. They are worthy to notice and treat their pain and anxiety, so they can flourish in wholeness.
Dr. Chanequa: I was never really taught to think of what I had as anxiety, even though I now realize on both sides of my family, there’s a lot of anxiety, but that we had normalized our fears. We just made it where everybody is afraid, so then this is normal, right?
Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today, we talk about the mental health challenges the Black community faces and carries across generations with psychologist and theologian Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes.
Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your happy host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show.
It’s a good one right now, you guys. Right now, we are in a really powerful series called For the Love of Black Lives. Absolutely, this conversation has captured the international attention of our generation, as it should, and there’s so much to learn right now. There’s so much to listen to. There are so many incredible leaders paving the way right now for what feels like really important change, and so we wanted to join the fray, obviously, at the podcast.
And so today, we’re going to learn a little bit more about something that’s so important for every single person listening to this show. We’re going to talk about mental health, and especially how Black women and men have extra barriers to caring for their mental health. And I’m not just talking about access to mental health care, which is, of course, important—and we’ll speak about that, too—but I mean that generationally, Black women and men have been cut off from accessing and caring for their own emotions, because for hundreds of years, they were forced to care for their oppressors instead, which has placed countless physical and mental burdens on that community. Those burdens have been handed down generation after generation, and they’ve taken on many, many forms inside the minds and bodies of Black men and women—sometimes in ways you wouldn’t think of.
Sometimes it looks like anxiety. It looks like trying to achieve professional success, because your mother made huge sacrifices so that you could pursue the dreams that you wanted, but you have to endure microaggressions that come from working in a world where your own dignity is questioned every single day, because you don’t probably look like the people in power.
One thing that we’ll talk about today is it might look like physical problems that come from stress being pumped through your body constantly, because you’re simply forced to be vigilant for your own safety and the safety of your loved ones, right? So, this is an important conversation for us to learn about the mental health struggles that Black women and men face, which plays such a huge role in the flourishing of our collective humanity.
So, today, lucky us. I am thrilled to have Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes to teach us about this today. Dr Chanequa—I mean, I could just go on and on about her credentials, but she’s a clinical psychologist, a theologian and minister, and her work focuses on healing the legacies of racial and gender oppression. Dr. Chanequa is a professor of Practical Theology at Mercer University. She’s the author of two excellent books called I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation, and also Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
Her list of writing credits in journals and books is as long as my arm, and I could never get to the bottom of them if I started saying them. Dr. Chanequa has an incredible professional history, and it’s given her a very broad canvas to paint on. She began her career as a research psychologist, and then focused on minority families and African-American adolescent development and health disparities, so she blends this really unique background in behavioral health and theology, and race and gender studies to be an advocate for healing and justice in the church. So what she is is a freaking warrior, that’s what she is.
I loved this conversation today. You are going to find it so interesting. She speaks so on the nose on the lived experience right now of the Black community, specifically in 2020, but going back for centuries, what we can do to help, how we can support the progress of this discussion. And so, this is a good one, you guys. I’m so happy that you’re here, and I’m so pleased to share my conversation with the brilliant and insightful Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes.
Jen: Okay, Dr. Chanequa, it is a real honor to have you on the For the Love Podcast today. Thank you so much for taking just time out of your life to be with us.
Dr. Chanequa: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. I’m really excited about this conversation and about this series.
Jen: Me too. I mentioned to you before we started recording that I have followed you and listened to you and learned from you for a long time. So I kind of had to take deep, cleansing breaths before you and I jumped on the phone, like, “It’s fine, it’s fine. She’s smart. She’s normal. She’s a normal person.”
Dr. Chanequa: Well, I can tell you that the feeling is mutual.
Jen: That’s so sweet. I filled my listeners in on your very impressive credentials, and those tell me a lot about a person and what that person values. But if you wouldn’t mind, I would love to hear a little bit more about yourself in your own words, and about where you find yourself in the world, and in your work right now, and maybe a little bit how you got here. Was that the path to where you are now? Can you tell us a little bit more?
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah. I am an African-American woman born and raised in the South by family members who are very much part of that slavery, to sharecropping, to working, to middle class Black community. So that, to me, my family and my family upbringing is my story, and it’s where I feel more rooted now than ever. And I’m a lifelong Southerner. I’ve never lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And pretty much every winter, it confirms, as I look at temperatures in other places, that I never want to.
Dr. Chanequa: So yeah, that’s who I am.
I started my career in psychology. Like a lot of women, I grew up in a church where the church was really important to me, but they did not believe in women in ministry, so ministry was not even something I thought about for my life. I felt like I had a call, and I actually used to talk about what I was called to do, but channeled that into psychology.
I went to Emory for undergraduate, and then went to University of Miami for graduate school, got my Masters and Ph.D. in clinical psychology. And then fortunately, by then, was in some more affirming religious communities and heard my call a lot more clearly, and ended up going back to school to go to seminary. And so, for the past thirteen, this is my fourteenth year, then, as a seminary professor, having done my educational path a little bit in reverse.
Jen: Yeah. Yeah, I grew up similar. I had no sense of my own anointing or power as a leader and as a teacher. I didn’t have that modeled, either, growing up. Women were in the passenger seat. And so, it’s just a good time to be alive.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes!
Jen: To discover there is a place for us in the world of leadership and academics and scholarship, and theology, and you’re all of it. It’s crazy. You hit every category. It’s so intimidating.
Dr. Chanequa: Oh, God.
Jen: Listen, I mentioned this earlier, but I’m glad you’ve chosen to be here today, because what you are giving my podcast community is the gift of your time, and your energy, and your experience, and all of that, I know, comes at a cost. It’s not a cost that I’ll ever fully understand, because I do not sit at all the same intersections that you do. But I just want you to hear me say that I acknowledge what you’re doing today, that you are teaching us through your lived and learned experience. And that is hard labor. And it is not your required responsibility—you’ve chosen to do it today. And so, please receive my gratefulness and our community’s gratefulness for this sort of emotional labor you are doing today for us.
Dr. Chanequa: Thank you.
Jen: I really, really appreciate that, and I see it. I see the cost built into it.
Dr. Chanequa: Thank you. Thank you so much, I appreciate that.
Jen: You’re welcome.
Okay, so Dr. Chanequa, I’m telling you what. Your professional experience is so rich, as you just sort of rolled out for us, between behavior, health, and theology. You’re just an incredible resource to better understand what we’re going to talk about a little bit today, which is the unique mental health struggles that Black women and men face that their white counterparts don’t. You’ve obviously done a ton of work to get where you are today as a scholar, and someone who is also trying to live authentically with radical self-care.
In fact, I read that you’ve called yourself a strong Black woman in recovery for the past fifteen years.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes.
Jen: I would love to hear more about that.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, and that, actually, was part of my entrance into ministry. It was just around my thirtieth birthday. I ended up having a lot of really chronic pain issues, some that kind of came out of nowhere. Therapists and doctors would be like, “Were you in an accident?” I was like, “Nope.” But I had all of this pain and other types of health problems that I realized were coming from stress. And at that time, I was teaching in a clinical psychology program on faculty, and realized I had a whole lot of stress, and that it was hurting me, and that a lot of my stress came from trying to be all things to all people.
I realized I couldn’t do that anymore, and so I began really my own program of self-recovery. I just started saying, “I’ve got to learn to take care of myself and take care of all of who I am.” I ended up sort of doing this work, and then sort of noticing I wasn’t alone in my suffering, that other Black women seemed to be suffering sort of the same thing. So, I began listening to women and working with women, and ended up realizing that what we were suffering was this cultural myth that we call the strong Black woman.
Jen: Yeah. Yeah, tell me more about that, because that is sort of a cultural vernacular that’s really bandied about pretty commonly. Can you tell us why you think that’s a myth, and why you believe that doesn’t allow Black women to be fully human? What is it?
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, we’re hearing a lot of it today with the naming of Kamala Harris as the Democratic nominee for vice president. A lot of people are talking about her as a strong Black woman, and people are kind of lumping onto that.
So, most of the time, when people try to explain or describe Black women in America, but also in other parts of the world—when they try to describe us in positive terms, they’re wanting to praise us, almost always the word that folks will go to is strong. It doesn’t matter what their actual race or identity is, they will always say, “Oh, she’s such a strong Black woman.” Right? And they mean that in the affirmative.
But that word strong, it really becomes a prison for Black women. What people usually mean by strong is not just resilient, but they really mean that we’re able to care for everybody else in the world and experience suffering without complaint, right? That we can do everything and feed everyone, but you will never [hear] us complain, you will never hear us seem to suffer. And so, the strong Black woman is sort of this superhuman figure who can just take on everything, and who can say yes, and yes, and yes, to everyone: her family, her co-workers. Everywhere she is, she’s the one who can kind of step in and take on everybody else’s role, and be the fixer, right?
Dr. Chanequa: But at the same time, she’s never supposed to express any needs of her own. Many Black women, it’s a myth in that that is not a real figure.
Dr. Chanequa: But we Black women, we feel like to have to live into that, and so we begin living into that and not taking care of ourselves, not actually even knowing what our own needs are because we’re so other-focused.
It’s what the U.S. culture does to women of all races, but then it has this hyper-focus on it because to not be strong, to be the opposite of that, a weak Black woman becomes not just an indictment on you, it’s an indictment on the race.
Jen: Right. Oh, that’s a heavy burden.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah.
Jen: When you parse it out like that, it’s obviously a myth, and obviously unfair, and creates such an unnecessary burden on the scope of a human life, which can be tender and gentle and overwhelmed, and in dire need of self-care. I really love your challenge to that moniker, because it’s interesting, as you mentioned at the beginning, that most people say that attempting to frame it in a positive light. And so, it’s so helpful to sort of really parse that out and recognize the destruction actually inside of it.
I think our culture right now, at least from my vantage point, thankfully, is learning a lot more about my trauma. I mean, more so than the generations before us, for sure, and how traumatic events don’t just happen to us in that moment, but they stay in our minds, they stay in our bodies longer than we are maybe even able to admit. And so, for people in the Black community, there is trauma of every size wrapped into the fabric of everyday life. And so, I wonder about the way Black women and men have to be constantly vigilant just for their safety, as they live just a normal, everyday, ordinary life, which undoubtedly has a huge effect on the mind, on the body.
So, my question is, when a person is focused so frequently with no relief on maintaining just their sense of safety, what happens to the way they begin to perceive the world, or form relationships, or just move through the ordinary rhythms of life?
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah. I mean, the whole existence of Black people in the United States is a story of trauma in the Americas, that our coming to America was literally a story of trauma, being kidnapped from your homeland, being forced into the bottom of a ship, made to be sardine-style and cuffed to other bodies who might not speak your language for months, as you were sent across the ocean to who knows where and who knows why, and when you got there, you were put up on this platform where people yelled what turned out to be money, prices at you. And then you were chained to another group of people and forced to travel, usually by foot, to someplace where then you were forced to work, and you were beaten, and you were raped.
You might have tried to form a family, but then your family could be taken from you at any moment. They could be sold from you. You could be sold from them. You might have to witness your children being beaten without being able to protect them. Eventually, some freedom happens, and you try to build a life in the midst of all that trauma, and a few centuries later, you get freed, but it’s kind of a false freedom, right? Very soon, the new system organizes itself under this thing called sharecropping and Jim Crow.
And so for most Black people, even before people became aware of police brutality, the existence of Black people has been one in which the slightest little provocation could cost you your life. Like, literally refusing to get off the sidewalk as a white person walked by could cost you your life. Emmitt Till potentially whistling at a white woman could make you be beaten and tortured.
And so, because of that, most of us—and again, I say I’m a lifelong Southerner—we have been trained to watch out for signs of danger. We have been trained to constantly watch out for white signs of danger, to watch out for white people and what white people are doing, and how they are approaching us, and what their demeanor seems to be, and how they act, and what they need. So, we’re constantly looking out for those signs of danger so that we can figure out what the environment is and how to adjust, right?
And so, that’s why the typical traffic stop is one that is potentially traumatic, because it didn’t take a Trayvon Martin or an Eric Garner or a Mike Brown for the vast majority of Black people to know that we could be killed in a moment’s notice by police. I’ve always been nervous when a policeman stops me, always—incredibly nervous.
And so, I think because of that, you kind of go through life with these expectations that the world is dangerous. But you can’t name that, right? You don’t have any ability to really name that. You know it’s the way life is, but certainly living always keyed up and cued up for danger, it makes us look for danger in places where there’s not. It makes us imagine danger in places where there’s not, so even when we’re in relationships with people who love us and care for us, we still might not be completely trusting of them. We still might not be willing to really let our guard down and be vulnerable around people who love us, because we’re afraid that they might hurt us. Even when we don’t think about it as overtly, we walk through the world thinking about it as a potentially dangerous place.
Jen: Right. Right. How would you describe the accrued effect of that daily fear on physical bodies?
Dr. Chanequa: Yes. Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score I think is one of the most important books for people to understand this, because fear is a biological response. I recently wrote something talking about fear as a gift from God. Fear is this really intricate biological process where if danger threatens us, our whole body changes how it functions at that moment in time. Different hormones and neurochemicals are being secreted. Our muscles, our blood pressure—all these different parts of our body respond so that we can escape the danger.
But when it does that, our body shuts down the parts that don’t need to be working right then, so the way you get more blood to the muscles is you shut down some of the blood in the gastrointestinal system. The stomach doesn’t need to be working right then. Your sexual organs don’t need to be working right then. There are all sorts of other things that say, “Okay, let’s move some of our energy elsewhere.”
Over time, if the body is being constantly triggered, it gets used to operating in that way. You’ve got systems in your body that are always being interrupted. And so we see that on the bodies of a lot of African-Americans, and that’s part of what is making this coronavirus pandemic so dangerous for African-Americans.
Jen: Yes. Yes, thank you for making that link.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, so our bodies are already, for the most part, not linking correctly, because trauma doesn’t just affect us. We know now from the literature that trauma’s effects are for at least two generations in the body, right? We’ve now got the data from people, from Jews who were in the concentration camps during the Holocaust, and we’ve got data on their grandchildren. It’s showing us that their bodies, the grandchildren’s bodies, are different from the bodies of Jews who did not go through the concentration camps.
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Dr. Chanequa: We’ve got other data coming out on sexual abuse and what happens to the children, and now the grandchildren, of women who were sexually abused during childhood. We’ve got that data now, right? So we know that what happens to my great-grandmother’s body is still in my body. I am about four generations removed from slavery, and again, only two generations removed from sharecropping. So what happened to them is in my body today, so then, when this disease comes and says that it really just ravages the body, I’m already at risk.
Jen: Totally. Right, you’re just already compromised by trauma.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes!
Jen: Right. This is so important. This is so important, and a missing piece of data for so many people who are struggling to understand the complex reasons why coronavirus, for example, is disproportionately affecting communities of color. This matters.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes.
Jen: You just mentioned being two generations removed from your grandfathers, who were sharecroppers. A few weeks ago on Instagram, you were showing off these awesome pickles. Which, by the way, that is my love language. Pickles, that’s my life theology. I’m also Southern, and that’s just what you do.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes!
Jen: So big props on the pickles! But you were showing these pickles that you spent the summer canning, and you wrote that how, after just two generations removed from your grandfathers, who were born sharecroppers, you said, “At some point, I realized my family’s racial trauma meant my relationship with creation was also traumatized,” which just stopped me in my tracks. I’m not sure I’ve heard somebody say it kind of on-the-nose like that.
Would you talk a little bit more about that, and how you are reclaiming your own relationship with creation?
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, so both of my grandfathers were raised on sharecropping farms. One actually wasn’t raised, he was a little bit older. He and his father ran away. So when my grandfather was seven years old, he and his father slipped off in the middle of the night to run away from their sharecropping farm, and they moved from South Carolina to Florida. Now, we’re not talking about slavery, right? We’re talking about sharecropping, but they had to run away to escape that because they knew they could be brought back, because sharecropping was really just a form of slavery.
But both of my grandfathers managed to be the last in the generation to be on sharecropping farms—one in South Carolina, one in Mississippi. And they moved their families separately, eventually, to Atlanta, and ended up moving within a mile of each other.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, so that’s how my parents met, they went to the same school.
Jen: Oh, sure.
Dr. Chanequa: And so they both moved into this community. And when we were there, especially Atlanta at that time—Atlanta was the only Southern city. So it was the great escape for many Southern Black people, that when we got there, it was an escape not just from the brutality of the South Carolina and Mississippi racism, but it was also an escape from the land, because the land in the U.S. has been traumatized. African-Americans’ relationship with the land has been from the first—again, being kidnapped from our land, taken to this stolen land, and being forced to work it from life and death. And then not just being forced, but being bound to work it. That was the only thing we could do, even after our so-called freedom.
And so, when my grandfathers came here, it was an escape. They had actually then created a new path for their children and grandchildren, so by the time I was coming along, we were like, “Why would you garden? You can go to the store.”
Dr. Chanequa: We were just like, “Why would you deal with the dirt?” Anything dirt was considered bad. We didn’t need to do that anymore. I don’t need to be outside. I could be inside in the central air.
Why would I want to be outside, right? And we used to pick at white people, like we didn’t understand. “Why do you keep going outside?” I had classmates in high school that would come in and be like, “I got this snake bite,” and we would be like, “Well, didn’t get you another snake bite before? Why did you go outside again?”
Dr. Chanequa: Why keep going outside hurting yourself? The outside is a bad place!
And so, for years, I really was very much inside. The only time I was outside was to go from one place or another. A few times a year, we might have picnics, but it was a very rare thing. At some point, I began to realize—and I think it was part of my understanding of indigenous theologies, and understanding the purpose of the land—and started thinking, But what land? This isn’t my land. I don’t have a land anymore. I don’t have a land.
I knew so very little about the place where I was born and raised. I was so uncomfortable with being outside. Then, I realized that every Black Southern person I knew—our relationship with land had been traumatized through our relationship with slavery. We have considered slavery, getting out of slavery, getting out of sharecropping, to be a freedom, right? But freedom meant running away from the land and being very much disconnected from the earth.
Jen: How are you addressing that in your own life? Where are you finding a renewed love for the earth and creation?
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, it started a few years ago, actually, not initially with the earth, but with the water.
Dr. Chanequa: My water fears, right? Again, water is a source of fear and unknown. You’re in a dark ship on the water, shark-infested waters at that, right? You knew they were shark-infested.
And so, I learned to swim. I took swimming classes at around the age of forty, because I was drawn to water and also very much afraid of it. And so learning to swim was part of that so I could get comfortable in the water.
Jen: I love that.
Dr. Chanequa: But then the other thing began to be learning to go outside, and like, “Okay, I’m going to go sit outside.” And then it’s like, “I want to walk.” Then, at some point, I was looking at the dirt and I was thinking, “I’ve got to get in the dirt.” I realized I was very divorced from my own food supply.
In my own journey of health, I had been learning more about organic gardening and my carbon footprint, and all of those things. And so I was making that, and I thought, I still don’t know anything about food and how to produce my food. If our whole economic system collapsed tomorrow, I wouldn’t know how to eat!
Dr. Chanequa: I wouldn’t know how to feed myself!
Dr. Chanequa: And so, I was like, I wouldn’t know anything! My husband and I started gardening. It has taken us a few years. We’ve had a few years of getting very little yield, or maybe one plant. One year, we got a whole bunch of jalapenos and nothing else.
Jen: Dang it!
Dr. Chanequa: We’re like, “We don’t understand!” But then, this year, we really just poured ourselves into it. And actually, we started a couple of years ago just developing garden beds and starting compost, and really enriching it. So, we had to learn how to work the soil and enrich it.
Jen: Oh yeah, you’ve done it. You’ve done it.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah! This year, we had to learn to test the soil. “Oh wow, this is why things weren’t coming in.” This year, we really threw ourselves into it and had a bigger garden. We got a good yield out of it. And then, along with that came me saying, “Well, I can’t let this food go to waste now that we’ve got it, so I’ve got to learn how to preserve it.” I had to suddenly learn canning.
Jen: So great.
Dr. Chanequa: You know what? It’s just been so healing and fun.
Jen: That makes me really happy. And also, of course, canning is quintessentially Southern.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes!
Jen: It’s almost like a rite of passage if we live this far south. Of course, my Grandma canned. I started gardening a few years ago, too, and it’s so satisfying. I didn’t know how things grew. I didn’t know. I got my food from the grocery store.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes, right?
Jen: I love that. That makes me really, really happy to hear.
I want to talk to you about this: one of my greatest gifts right now is therapy. I would be six feet under without therapy right now. It’s no joke. I have always said that every single person could benefit from learning how to weather love and loss and relationships and suffering. It’s just life school, that’s what that is. It’s life school where we learn how to be human.
But even now, when there’s so much research that shows us clearly how beneficial it is for people to talk with a counselor, sometimes there’s still a stigma. In addition, there are so many barriers to entry, because so many insurance plans don’t cover any mental health maintenance, so cost is a huge factor. But then there are even more barriers to accessing clinical mental health in the Black community. I think about how many Black and brown bodies are incarcerated instead of given the mental care that they would need to thrive. There’s a laundry list of barriers that exist for the Black community and their access to mental health.
Can you talk through some of those for us, and discuss what kind of steps we could take to make sure that access to mental health care is just a basic human right, because it is?
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah. Yeah, that’s such a good question.
So, stigma is huge, especially for people of color, in general. There’s often this stigma against mental health and mental illness as being a white thing. That is starting to shift, but it’s because of the way we were already racially stigmatized. You didn’t want to add any other stigma on that by also having mental illness. But also, the very first mental illness that was described in the U.S. was something called drapetomania, and it was defined as a slave who ran away from their master.
Dr. Chanequa: The Black desire for freedom was seen as a mental illness, a diagnosable condition. And because of that and things like the Tuskegee Experiment, African-Americans have developed a suspicion—a reasonable suspicion—of the health care system, especially the mental health care system. And so, there’s been a lot of stigma against that that is even heightened.
But then, that’s getting better, but the other issue we now have is the barrier to treatment, that for many people, it’s lack of parity, so that mental illness still isn’t given the same type of treatment by insurers and our health care system as medical illnesses. And so it becomes very hard sometimes for people to access good treatment, good quality treatment, when they need it. The easiest thing to do is to call the police and get the police involved, right?
Jen: That’s right.
Dr. Chanequa: And then that brings in a whole another set of danger, but people have a hard time accessing it.
The other issue, though, is that we don’t have a whole lot of Black and other people of color who are therapists. People of color, by and large, want to see therapists who are also people of color, often people who match their racial ethnicity or some other person of color, and that African-Americans—as a psychologist, I don’t know how the numbers are the last time I looked—African-Americans were only three percent of clinical psychologists in the country.
Jen: Gosh, three percent.
Dr. Chanequa: Three percent, right? That’s often the case in a lot of places.
And then on top of that, there’s that, but a lot of people of color really struggle with white therapists, so when people have tried to find a white therapist—because the few Black and other therapists of color, because we’re people too, and because safety is a real issue for us, we aren’t evenly spread throughout the country.
Therapists of color are highly concentrated in cities because we want to live in places where we’re safe, where we can access services. And so, we don’t go out into the rural areas. We go to Atlanta. We go to Charlotte. We go to other cities, New York. We go to Chicago. There are certain cities where you can find them. But once you get outside those cities, even the smaller towns, even university towns, you might not find a therapist.
And so then, the other option for people of color is to go to a white therapist. And quite frankly, there are a lot of ignorant white therapists. There are a lot of white therapists who have not worked through their own racism.
Dr. Chanequa: They don’t know how to work with people of color. When I was in school in psychology, I recall having classmates that I would think, I hope you never see a person of color.
Dr. Chanequa: Right? That was my thought because, I knew how much bias they had and just utter cultural ignorance in terms of understanding there’s more than one way to live in and view the world.
And so, there’s just a huge problem with lack of access to a therapist. I don’t want to go to therapy and explain to you my cultural background.
Dr. Chanequa: An Asian-American should not have to go to a therapist and explain why they can’t disobey their parents, right?
Jen: Exactly. Right.
Dr. Chanequa: That’s not what I want to come to therapy and have to do. I don’t want to have to go and explain why I feel compelled to try to take care of people all the time, and to have my therapist not act like that’s some individual pathology. There are multiple barriers, and that’s even if you can afford therapy.
Dr. Chanequa: You still are going to have trouble finding a therapist. I can tell you, it has taken me years because part of the issue is as an African-American therapist, well, a lot of the folks that I think are good therapists? I can’t go to them because I know them professionally.
Jen: Right, totally.
Dr. Chanequa: So then I have to essentially look outside my community to find a good therapist, which means I have to find a white therapist, usually, or at least a non-Black therapist. It can be a really tricky thing.
Jen: Right, and that’s you, who is deeply embedded in the community. So if anybody would know how to navigate it and find the right person, it would be you. I know it’s hard for you, too.
Dr. Chanequa: Right.
Jen: So that’s very telling, how the ordinary person is going to struggle to find appropriate therapy and an appropriate therapist for their experience.
I wonder if we are seeing an uptick at all right now in the number of Black men and women going into that field. I wonder if that’s on the rise at all.
Dr. Chanequa: It has gone up, and I think it also helps that people are no longer just limited to clinical psychology. Clinical psychology, the programs are certainly becoming more diverse, but more states have more pathways to being a licensed therapist.
Jen: Good point.
Dr. Chanequa: People can often go into those other fields. Many African-Americans, rightly so, didn’t want to go into clinical psychology or Ph.D.s if it didn’t necessarily mean that—they didn’t want to be faculty, right?
Dr. Chanequa: They didn’t want to be researchers, and there were a lot of hurdles, there were a lot of microaggressions a lot of times in Ph.D. programs. And so many people just didn’t want to deal with that or enter those programs early.
Jen: Totally. Subject themselves to that, right.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah. We’re now having some more options, and we’ve had now for a while, but they’re becoming more robust: professional counseling, clinical social working. I think those Masters-level professions, they’ve opened up a few more. So I often have to tell people, “Don’t just limit yourself where you are to looking for a Black psychologist, because we’re three percent.” Right?
Jen: Yeah, totally.
Dr. Chanequa: “You might find somebody if you know how to go look in these other fields.”
Jen: That’s a great point.
The world right now has not been conducive to our mental health, to say the least, and anxiety is going off the charts. This has been a really profoundly hard year, and I can imagine that it’s amplified to another degree for the Black community. You’ve opened up really transparently about your own experience with anxiety during 2020. Would you mind talking a little bit about you have—well, how you’ve battled anxiety throughout your life, perhaps, and then what that has looked like for you? You mentioned that your own anxiety symptoms don’t necessarily match the status quo, and I wonder if you can unpack that a little bit for us.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah. I mean, I think I have suffered from anxiety at least since I was about four or five years old.
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Dr. Chanequa: I’ve had insomnia since then. So for most of my life, until the past maybe five years, I suffered from insomnia. And a lot of that was around fear, and so I remember being young and being afraid to go to sleep. It’s hard to name fear and anxiety within many Black communities. When everybody is afraid, fear becomes something that’s a bad thing, that you just don’t acknowledge, right?
Dr. Chanequa: You just get over it. And so, I was never really taught to think of what I had as anxiety, even though I now realize, on both sides of my family, there’s a lot of anxiety, but that we had normalized our fears. We just made it where everybody is afraid, so then this is normal, right? It’s normal for everybody to be constantly watching their environment. It’s normal to be afraid of dogs. It’s normal to be afraid of swimming pools. It was just normalized, and so we couldn’t even name it as fear.
So for the longest time, I didn’t realize I had anxiety. Another thing that’s common in many African-Americans, we will experience anxiety disorders, but we don’t have the key symptom that is required, which is fear or nervousness.
Jen: Right, right.
Dr. Chanequa: Our emotional experience, we don’t name it as fear, or nervous, or being nervous. To this day, I very often don’t feel nervous. When I was going through cancer treatment and I would go to the appointments, they would say, “How are you doing today?” And they asked me about nervousness, and I would say, “I’ll know once you give me my blood pressure.” Because I can’t access the feeling of fear.
Dr. Chanequa: I need something in my body to tell me, “Oh, wow. Okay, yeah, I must be nervous right now.” And so, because I’ve learned to, this is what you do when you’re being enslaved. You don’t have the option of sitting and naming that emotion. You just keep pressing through it, and so that’s been passed down. So, I often have to pay attention to my body to figure out how I’m feeling emotionally, right?
Yes. It will be like, “Oh, wait, my stomach is acting up for absolutely no reason.”
Jen: Uh-huh. Totally.
Dr. Chanequa: “Wait, let me go check my blood pressure. Oh, I must be worried.” I end up having to use those as my signals. So yeah, so learning to name my anxiety has become part of my also process to healing, to even be upfront about the fact that, Yeah, I’m anxious.
For me, I’m fortunate. Most of my anxiety stays sub-clinical, but I know it’s there and I know that all it takes is the right trigger to kick it up, and then I can end up very easily being in the clinical level of meeting a PTSD diagnosis or meeting something else. And so, I’ve had to learn how to kind of take care of my anxiety on a day-to-day basis, but also be very careful of the trigger, and this whole coronavirus thing—coronavirus is the trigger of all triggers, right?
Dr. Chanequa: It is just like there is something horrible out there and it may very well kill you, and it’s invisible. You don’t know who has it. It is the perfect recipe for anybody with anxiety. And it’s funny because anxiety, in some ways, is a gift. I’ve been joking a little bit, like, anybody who has a little bit of a tendency towards OCD knows all about how to quarantine right now. The anal folks are your quarantine MVPs right now.
Jen: You’re right. “You’re born for this!”
Dr. Chanequa: “You need me to do what? Okay, let me check all of this here.” If you walk in my house, at our front door, there’s a basket of masks, clean masks, and Clorox wipes and the one bottle of Lysol spray, because you need that. The world is dangerous.
So we already thought the world was dangerous…
Jen: Got it, yep, and now it’s proving itself true!
Dr. Chanequa: It’s proving itself true, exactly!
So yeah, we can do that, but on the other side is that we can’t turn that anxiety off, because once anxiety gets triggered, it’s all-encompassing. Your anxiety doesn’t stay focused on COVID. It’s everything, so you can’t sleep. All these other things—every fear you have is probably magnified right now. If you’ve got phobias, they might be more all-encompassing than they usually are right now. If you’ve got social anxiety, it might be kicking up right now because of everything else.
Anxiety never stays in its box, so once it’s let out, it’s out. It’s out, and so you really have to be careful and you have to learn how to take care of it.
Jen: Well, speaking of that, as you mentioned earlier, you’ve gone on a journey of self-care for fifteen years, so at this point, you are really adept, I imagine, at knowing your mind, knowing your body, knowing how to care for yourself. Could you talk for a minute about why it is so important, particularly for Black women, to make time for radical self-care, and what that looks like for you? What are your practices to keep yourself grounded and healthy and whole?
Dr. Chanequa: The whole world basically tells Black women all the time that our needs are less important than those of the world around us. And so because of that, many of us don’t even know what we need. We literally don’t know how to pay attention to our body. We don’t know how to notice pain.
I have a chronic pain condition. At one point, I had a really good doctor when I was diagnosed, a really good doctor who took a lot of time with me. He was an African-American male. It took forever to diagnose the pain because I never told him my symptoms. I thought my symptoms were normal. I thought everybody has pain like that, or I was just used to moving it through, and so I sometimes told doctors—when you have a Black woman in the room, you almost have to go body part by body part and ask her, “Do you have any distress in that body part?”
Jen: Wow, gosh.
Dr. Chanequa: We may very well tell you we’re feeling fine, and we’re in pain at that exact moment, but we’ve learned to live with it. I’ve had to learn how to, first, pay attention to me, and that’s why carving out radical self-care—it really shouldn’t be radical, and isn’t radical, but yes, it is, because everything tells us that that’s our job, to take care of people.
If you look at most TV shows that have starred Black women over the past ten years, they have been Black women who take care of people. That’s their job on the show. Shonda Rhimes, nearly [every] show she has is a Black woman who takes care of people. That’s what Scandal—Olivia Pope literally was the gladiator in the suit who went and saved people from their own messes, right?
Jen: That’s right.
Dr. Chanequa: And her world was falling apart, but that’s what we do. In real life, we think that’s who we’re supposed to be, so we don’t pay attention to ourselves.
So what’s radical about it is for us to say, “You know what? I need to create some time where I can just pay attention to me. I need to create some time where I don’t have to think about anybody else, and I need to just sit and be still for a minute, and notice, ‘Oh, my back hurts, and it’s been hurting for a few days now.'” It takes time to do that.
And so the first part of self-care, I think for many African-American women, is actually to let yourself know that you’re worthy of self-care.
When I started my journey, that was the affirmation I started myself with every morning. I am worthy of self-care.
Jen: That’s good. That’s great.
Dr. Chanequa: Yeah, and that was the first thing I had to learn.
Jen: Let me ask you this, as we kind of start wrapping up here: my audience is made up largely of white women, and when they hear our conversation today, obviously they’re going to want to learn more, but then they’re going to probably want to do more to help their Black sisters and brothers.
And so we can obviously, absolutely do our own homework. Like I always say, you have Google. But I wondered, if I asked you this just specific question: if any of my listeners wanted to tangibly, in any way, help Black women in the arena, specifically, of mental health, and especially with their self-care, do you have any suggestions? What does being a good ally look like in this conversation?
Dr. Chanequa: I think that the first thing is—and I love this question—but I think the first thing is, listeners who might be hearing this and saying, “Oh, my goodness!” Who relate to this or who connect and feel their hearts impacted by this, and saying, “I want to somehow help in this,” one of the first things that I think white women, in particular, have to do is to really be honest about their relationship with Black women. Because when I talk about this, when I talk about the strong Black woman, this isn’t something we do to ourselves. It’s very often the white women we’re in relationship with who are contributing to this.
One of my friends who is a faculty colleague woman—when my book, Too Heavy a Yoke, which talks about the strong Black woman, came out and she read it, she said she realized that whenever she was on the job and needed to delegate something to someone and had to make sure it got done, she said she intuitively looked for a Black woman. And she hadn’t realized that, that the load and the burden she was putting on the Black women in her own life, right?
Dr. Chanequa: And so, I think part of that is to begin to be real open and honest about those conversations. What relationships do you have with Black women, and what function do those take? To what degree are you seeking help?
Jen: That’s good.
Dr. Chanequa: How are you adding to the burden of the Black women in your life, the Black women who might work for you? I think there’s a lot of work for honesty around that.
And then, I think the other thing people can start doing is reading about the lives of Black women so they understand this better.
Jen: That’s good.
Dr. Chanequa: There are national organizations that do help advocate for mental illness, particularly with African-Americans, so people could donate to those organizations. They could give their time to those organizations. If they’re a therapist, they could work on developing their own cultural competency, so that they can be better therapists for African-Americans.
One tangible way—this is not a white woman I know. I had a Black friend who read my book, and she had this white woman contact her and say, “I’ve heard that you really thought well of this book. How can I help?”
My friend was like, “Buy copies of this book and hand it out to Black women you know.”
Jen: There you go.
Dr. Chanequa: There’s this white woman who actually buys from my friend cases of my book, and my friend is able to then just give this book out, give my book out to people.
And it’s not going to be just my book. There are a couple of other people who have done some writing on this, too, but I think to then begin supporting people in these ways, as well. Those are some of the real specific ways people can help.
Jen: Great suggestions. I’d like to apply that bit of wisdom you just dropped in terms of white therapists. Also, white teachers who have a huge role to play in the lives of their students of color and developing their cultural and racial competencies in the classroom. That starts early.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes.
Jen: That starts really early, creating safety around students of color and their experience, so that they are seen and understood and loved and respected for who they are and how they are. Those are places where a lot of Black kids feel invisible to their white teachers who just don’t understand anything about their lived experience.
Okay. These are the last three questions. They’re just kind of like off the top of your head, that we’re asking everybody in this series. Here’s the first one, probably a really big question. You can just narrow it down, pick a couple. Who have been some of your greatest role models?
Dr. Chanequa: Oh, my great-grandmothers and grandmothers, easily. They are. And the older I get, the more I’m like, “Yep, they’re my heroes.” Yeah, easily.
Jen: One thing that I love about that question in this series is that, almost without exception, every guest I have had in this series has the same answer. Almost no exceptions, yes.
Dr. Chanequa: That is wonderful!
Jen: Yep, great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and mothers, and aunties—that’s the answer.
Dr. Chanequa: Wow!
Jen: Yes, it just makes my heart expand forty sizes.
Next one: who are some of your favorite artists or teachers, or leaders, or academics that you’d like us to learn from and support?
Dr. Chanequa: Well, she’s not going to like me saying this, but Renita Weems.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes. Renita Weems. It’s really the classics. Emilie Townes. Delores Williams. Jacquelyn Grant. Katie Cannon. James Cone. It is people like that who will take your worldview and turn it upside down. And for many people, they’re the calm in the storm. You aren’t happy with Christianity, and you were made to think that you didn’t fit and you didn’t belong in the church. And then you find folks like these who think like them, who open up the Bible and open up our tradition in ways that are liberating, and you say, “Oh, my God, there’s a place for me here.”
Jen: Everybody listening, we will link to every single person just named, because you’re so right, those are incredible resources. That can change your life, because it can change your thinking and your understanding, which will change your life. So it’s not a small place to start, which is simply sit, listen and learn. Change your exposure.
Dr. Chanequa: Yes.
Jen: Last question: we ask every guest in every series this final question, and please feel free, Dr. Chanequa, to answer it however you want. It can be as big and important, or as small and ridiculous, as you want to say, but here it is. This is from Barbara Brown Taylor. What’s saving your life right now?
Dr. Chanequa: Offhand, walking every day.
Jen: Oh, wow, even in Southern summer.
Dr. Chanequa: Every morning this summer—yes, I’ve had to get up early. I can’t do it too late, so it makes me get up before I really want to get up, but it is just being able to go out and go for a walk. I mean, the past five months, that’s the only time I’ve gotten outside my house pretty much, other than medical appointments. And so getting outside the house to walk every day and just to have that quietness. I’m also an introvert, so it bothers me that at no point am I alone in my home anymore!
Dr. Chanequa: I need that space. There are only three of us in this house. That’s too many!
Jen: Same! These people need to leave!
Dr. Chanequa: They need to leave!
Jen: I know. In so many ways, quarantine life matches my ethos, because I’m a homebody, I work from home, and I’m an introvert. But I just need all the rest of these people to get the hell out of here.
Dr. Chanequa: Right. I don’t mind being quarantined, but why do you all have to be here all of the time? And so I go for a walk because I’m like, “They’re not here.” And they’re like, “Can we go for a walk?”
Jen: Right. “You’re just going to have to stay put. I’m very sorry.” I love it.
Okay, before I let you go, can you please tell my listeners where they can find you, where to look for you, and maybe what you’re working on right now?
Dr. Chanequa: I am on my website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all at Dr. Chanequa. My website is DrChanequa.com. And on all the social medias, I’m on there @DrChanequa. Yeah, you can find me that way there.
You know what? Right now, I am intentionally not working on anything. This is crazy. It’s the first time in my life that I haven’t gone directly from one project to another. But I’m trying to give myself space for this quarantine moment, because honestly, there are times when I hit a wall, when my energy is down, when my mood is down. My kid is working and trying to do work from school, from home right now, and needs me in different ways. So, I’m trying not to over-program myself like the way I normally do. I’m being very intentional about under-programming myself. So yeah, I’m not working on anything, other than getting through each day.
Jen: That’s so good. I feel like you’re just telling me off right now with that very good answer.
I just want to say one last thing before we go here. I am really grateful for you and for who you are, for your very wonderfully spectacular and unique body of work that you’ve brought to bear on our culture, on our generation, the amount of intellectual and emotional and spiritual labor that you voluntarily engage to continue to move the needle forward on justice and wholeness and equality. It’s just really special, and you are a really special leader with an enormous capacity.
And so not only have you been really such a wonderful resource for my community today, but just to me, personally. I’ve always been grateful for whoever told me to follow you the first time, all that time ago. And so I just want you to know that I’ve kind of quietly sat at your feet for a long time and have learned so much from you.
Dr. Chanequa: Oh, wow.
Jen: And so, thank you. Thank you for just being who you are in the world, for your courage to engage your work, and then your willingness to share it with the rest of us.
Dr. Chanequa: Oh, wow. Thank you so much. I’m honored more than you know by that.
Jen: Well, all the blessings to you. Please enjoy your pickles. I honor your pickle-making ability to grow your food and can it. May you be praised at the city gates!
Thank you, Dr. Chanequa.
Dr. Chanequa: Thank you so much.
Jen: Okay, so special. What a leader. What a thinker. What a faithful warrior. I always just say, if nobody listens to this podcast, I’m still the lucky one for getting to have these conversations with the best of the best—just the cream of the crop—and how much I have learned from all of these interviews and all of these leaders. I’ll never ever get to the bottom of it. I’m so grateful to Dr. Chanequa today for her time.
We have more to come in this series. Really, really incredible thinkers to walk us through various facets of Black Lives Matter, and what this means in this cultural moment, and what the intersections are. And so, you’re going to want to come back, 100 percent, next week.
Thank you for listening to this podcast. Thank you for caring. Thank you for putting this conversation into your own vernacular, into your own experience. This is good work. It’s great work. This matters. It matters who you’re listening to, who you’re learning from, what you’re putting into practice, what paradigms you are willing to challenge.
This is good work, podcast listener, so thank you for being here. Also, thank you for rating and reviewing this show and for sharing it. This is a good one to bandy around, and subscribe if you haven’t already.
So, on behalf of Laura and the podcast crew, and Amanda and I, we are so grateful to serve you and to bring you this podcast, week in and week out. It’s our honor and our joy. Okay, guys, see you next week.