Illustration of people embracing one another
By Jessica Graham-LoPresti ’06 Illustration by Diana Ejaita

The physical and psychological injuries of racism.

On the morning of August 24, I turned on the news, opened up social media and was immediately overwhelmed by videos of Jacob Blake being shot seven times, in the back, by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. As I lay in bed with my husband, tears streaming down my face, my 2½-year-old daughter came bounding into our bedroom. “Mama, why you crying?” she asked when she saw my face. “You have a boo-boo?”

While I don’t know Jacob Blake personally—nor did I know Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Sandra Bland or so many others whose lives have been ended or permanently altered by racialized violence—I do know them. I value their lives just as I value the lives of my brother, father, mother, daughter, friends of color and my unborn Black son, due to arrive in November. Racial trauma is real and—for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)—inescapable.

How is it possible that I have to explain racialized violence to my innocent 2½-year-old daughter? What could I possibly say? This time, I lied. “These are happy tears because mama loves you so much.”

I lied because I could not bear to tell her the truth, yet. The true answer to her question is “Yes.” BIPOC have physical and psychological injuries from frequent and pervasive exposure to racism at cultural, systemic, institutional and individual levels. These injuries begin in childhood and continue throughout adulthood. As BIPOC, we are exposed to personal experiences of racism as well as to the racialized violence and trauma experienced by others across the country and seen on media and social media. We anticipate this exposure, and these experiences of racism can lead to deleterious mental health consequences, including stress, anxiety, trauma, sadness, hopelessness and anger.

Currently, BIPOC are contracting and dying from Covid-19 and associated complications at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans. The pandemic has exposed systemic oppression in the form of racial disparities in housing, education, food security, access to quality health care, availability of clean water and many more resources necessary for livelihood. As BIPOC, we understand, deeply, that these disparities are the source of the overwhelming casualties of Covid-19 in our communities. We also understand that we are fighting for our lives as we protest racial injustice and inequity.

While the current state of racial justice in our country is bleak, I’m heartened by the resurgence of commitment by people from all walks of life who are facing the reality of systemic oppression in our country and trying to do better. I’m heartened by the first responders, medical professionals, teachers and frontline workers making immense sacrifices to care for us and our loved ones. I’m hopeful because of these demonstrations of the great capacity for compassion and sacrifice that are central to being human.

So this is how I’ll introduce my daughter to our world. I’ll show her that people and communities of color are beautiful, resilient and empowered. I’ll teach her to value her identity as a multiracial and multiethnic girl and woman. I’ll instill in her compassion and kindness. And, yes, someday soon, I’ll begin to teach her about racism and the ways it will negatively affect her life. I don’t have a choice.

Photograph of Jessica Graham-LoPresti and Bella
Jessica Graham-LoPresti ’06 is an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk University. Her research focuses on the multilevel impact of racism on the mental health of people and communities of color.