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After Atatiana: Personal Responses to Collective Black Trauma

By Dr. Brian Dixon

|Oct 31, 2019

Another life lost. A friend, an aunt, an aspiring doctor.

On October 12th, Ms. Atatiana Jefferson was killed in her own bedroom. A police officer was ostensibly dispatched to make sure she was okay, and then he shot her.

He’s now charged with her murder.

As citizens of Fort Worth, we’re angry and heartbroken by this killing. But this is far from an isolated incident.

Our pain is tangible because this latest killing resonates with other police brutality in Fort Worth. Six police killings since June? Four of those people killed were black.

We’re the latest symptom of the public health crisis of fatal police violence across the country: our tax dollars continue to pay for the police who kill us.

For Ms. Jefferson, this systemic failure happened in her own home in the dead of night.

What can we do with all this pain?

Our city is working to find a way to manage this investigation. But meanwhile the anger, frustration, and heartbreak of our community is palpable.

As a black man in Fort Worth, I’m deeply upset... and afraid. This threat is deep and local and existential. On a professional level, as a psychiatrist, I’m also keenly aware of the emotional mechanisms at play.

How not to respond to trauma

In the midst of great sorrow and pain, our basic instincts tend to run the show. Our sympathetic nervous systems only give us three options: fight, flight, or freeze.

You might feel this response like a rush of blood to the head. When this system is kicked into high gear, our psychological defense mechanisms rear their head.

The first and most innate response in the face of such a threat are immature defense mechanisms like regression (becoming child-like) and acting out (extreme behaviors.) Unfortunately, these types of defense mechanisms tend to only cause more trauma.

And we know that trauma begets trauma: You hurt me? Now I will hurt you back.

On the other hand, the idea of simply "turning the other cheek" (e.g. repression) serves to minimize the real pain in our community. You can’t just wave your hand and solve this problem. We. are. hurting.

Arguing whether black folks should "take the high road and forgive" or "be stepped on" (e.g. all-or-nothing thinking) is not helpful because it completely lacks nuance of the socioeconomics that marginalized our voices to begin with.

Dismissing pain never negates it. Our pain is real and needs to be acknowledged — by ourselves and the systems that keep perpetrating this violence. Then we need real change and real action.

So what can we do to find healthier responses?

There are a million different roads that each of us can take in response to this trauma in our city. For me, the question becomes: which roads will be the most mature, productive, and helpful to us and our community?

I would encourage each person to fight your basic defense mechanisms. It’s hard, but by moving beyond primitive defenses, we can find a better way to holistically address our grief, be effective change agents — and perhaps even find a way to eventually get some sleep again.

First, it’s okay to be sad and angry. Make space for your emotions during this time, but take care to find safe, non-violent ways of expressing these emotions. Please make it a priority to take care of yourself and others.

Moving forward, there are far fewer mature defense mechanisms to choose from. But maybe it’s preferable that we’re not overwhelmed with choices. Simple is better.

First, I aim for humor. If there's nothing funny (as in the case of an Xavier pre-med graduate gunned down before the prime of her life), I lean on sublimation.

Sublimation means channeling unacceptable impulses — like the desire to scream, throw myself down on the ground and kick until I feel better — into a more acceptable action like mentoring black med students, singing with the Turtle Creek Chorale, or speaking about “therapeutic reparations.”

Trauma… it’s exhausting

The James Baldwinesque exhaustion I feel from being a participant in the collective black trauma is immense. It's easy to give in to projection, displacement, and passive aggression.

Instead, I personally pour money and time into neighborhood marketing, fighting mental health stigma, seeing patients, and networking with Fort Worth influencers to build a more healthy and inclusive Cowtown.

My friend Nikki often says, "You didn't come this far to come this far" so I can’t quit. I can’t stop now. We’ve made amazing progress and there’s much further to go.

As devastating and traumatic as Ms. Jefferson's death is for our community, we must collectively sublimate our rage to improve our community.

Here’s a couple ideas for doing just that:

Neighborhood leadership

Recently, Fort Worth residents marched to the City Council meeting to let their voices be heard. “How can we feel safe if we die in our homes?” Jamaal Johnson asked the council. This type of community outpouring is good, but I hope it continues with further work at the grassroots level too.

Being President of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association has shown me the power of grassroots organizing. For my part, I am working to inspire economic growth amongst neighbors for the betterment of the entire community. We're creating an engine for economic growth in a historically black Fort Worth neighborhood.

Putting my weight behind initiatives that will hopefully have huge benefits for the entire community is a great way to sublimate the pain I feel right now.

Access to capital

Did you know that DFW ranks 10th in the nation for number of millionaires (25 of those who are billionaires)? There is no good reason that we lack an Enterprise Fund for black startups and neighborhood associations.

Contact me if you want to help set one up. Let’s do it.

While our neighborhood association dues are only $10/year, we can't leverage the marketing to show the city what makes us unique on a budget of less than $1,000 a year.

I can only imagine what we could do in our neighborhood with a budget several times that.

Voting and the 2020 census

With the 2020 Census on our doorstep, now is the time to double check you're registered to vote, actually vote, then hold those elected accountable. Make sure you're counted because this determines how communal dollars are allocated.

Therapy-for-all

The benefits of restructuring healthcare finance (ChangeHealth.today) would mean that every person could finally afford to see a therapist. Remember: you are a TERRIBLE therapist for yourself, so go talk to someone.

I hope that the third party review of the Fort Worth Police Department and City of Fort Worth policies result in meaningful change but I am not waiting for a Superman that might not be coming.

Take personal control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions to ensure Atatiana's death was not in vain.

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About the author

Dr. Brian J. Dixon

With accolades spanning my career as a child psychiatrist, entrepreneur, writer, and public speaker, I advocate for a more sensible U.S. healthcare solution that appeals across all party lines. I am a Texan, born and raised. My psychiatry practice, Progressive Psychiatry, is based in Fort Worth.

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