Breonna Taylor was killed a year ago. Breonna Taylor is still everywhere.

Young Black women see her in the mirror. Older Black women see her in their daughters. 

Nearly a year ago, George Floyd cried out for his mother as he took his last breath under a police officer’s knee. George Floyd is still everywhere. Black mothers see him in their sons. Black children see him in their fathers. 

Last year, the police killings of Taylor and Floyd led to a racial reckoning. This year, those traumas continue to ripple through Black communities.  

#SayHerName: Black women like Breonna Taylor die every day at the hands of police. 

“When I see people who look like me, especially women who look like me who are being murdered on a daily basis, I have to ask myself, what do I need to do to take care of myself?” asked Anika Nailah, an author who conducts social justice workshops. “There’s so many people who have been killed over the years. … You can’t keep up anymore. Each one of them is a human being. Each one of them has a family. You never know, when you’re talking to somebody now in your circle, who they’re grieving for.” 

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March 13 marks one year since Taylor was killed by police officers in her Louisville, Kentucky, home, and this week, jury selection began in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with Floyd’s murder. Though high-profile Black deaths such as Taylor’s and Floyd’s can make racism seem episodic, decades of data show racism is structural, interpersonal and omnipresent, exacting a profound physical and emotional toll. 

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Breonna Taylor was an ER technician in Louisville. (Photo: Taylor Family attorney Sam Aguiar via AP)

Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating mental conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders, mental health experts say. 

“Black people … are not defective. This system is,” said Resmaa Menakem, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and author of the book, “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies.” “It’s predicated on the white body being the standard [and] what gets woven into that is that we are imposters and we are fraudulent and we should have to contend with racialized shame because we are not considered to be human.”

‘Traumatizing effects … get passed down

Menakem said not only must Black people cope with present-day traumas, but they also carry the effects of intergenerational trauma, which impact individuals and social groups in myriad ways. 

“Traumatizing effects … get passed down because the people that are being raped and murdered and sold are having to organize themselves around that trauma … all of those things in the nervous system get passed down without context,” he said. “That weathers the body. That is a Black tax.”

Arline Geronimus, a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, uses the term “weathering” to describe the way chronic stressors – which can include interpersonal microaggressions and institutionalized racism – erode bodies. In humans, life-threatening stressors activate a physiological stress response. The problem is people who experience discrimination have that response chronically.

Racial discrimination accelerates aging at the cellular level, according to a study in 2014 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 

“We never account for the effects of this feral system on our bodies,” Menakem said. “When I wake up and I get ready to put my shoes on and walk out of this house, or my son gets ready to wake up or my daughter gets ready to wake up and they put their shoes on and go out the house and get in the car, my stomach turns until they get back.”

The power of microaggressions

Nailah said sometimes the most difficult part of being Black is feeling as though you have to prove to people who are not living in your body that what you’re experiencing is reality.  

“You’re putting your guts in the middle of the floor for people to pick through and decide what’s real and what’s not real, and they’re the least qualified to do so,” she said. “If you have that moment where it’s the 13th racial microaggression you’ve experienced that day and you just can’t hold it in anymore … then you’re the angry Black woman.”

Demonstrators protest outside the Hennepin County Government Center before jury selection begins at the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin on March 8 in Minneapolis. (Photo: KEREM YUCEL, AFP via Getty Images)

White people, she said, need to understand the experience of being Black because white people are best-positioned to change policies that perpetuate racial violence. But Nailah said she often finds herself calculating how much truth white people can accept. 

“Their blind spot, it packs a punch,” she said. “If you can’t see me and if you can’t feel me, then you become dangerous to me. You become dangerous to people I love, people I care for. … Sometimes you just get so angry that you just want to shake somebody.”

Coping with the deaths of Taylor and Floyd

Menakem said for communities of color to heal, they must mark the deaths of Taylor and Floyd. This is the time, he said, when people will begin to feel the “remembrance of Breonna Taylor or George Floyd in our bodies.”

A portrait of George Floyd is on display outside the Unitarian Universalist Church where the North Shore Solidarity March: We Still Can't Breathe concluded in Marblehead, Mass., on July 31, 2020. (Photo: Wicked Local Staff Photo / David Sokol)

It may look like difficulty sleeping and eating, he said, or a struggle with depression and anxiety.

“We have to create communal ways of dealing with the communal horror. What happened to Breonna Taylor was communal. It happened to her individually, but the impact, the traumatic impact was communal,” he said.

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Nailah said the onus cannot remain on Black people to cope with these traumas. Systems must change. Professed white allies must do more.

“It’s not enough to just have these raging conversations in their head. What does it look like for us to know that you’re with us? What does it look like in a neighborhood? What does it look like in an institution? What does it look like in a school?” she said. “Even though [we’re talking about] systems, they’re human beings in the systems. Systems don’t change, people change the system.”

For Black Americans, the wait is excruciating. Death and grief overwhelm. Nailah said her “sister circle” has been crucial to her own survival. Each day, she tries to reflect on the beauty of the body she inhabits, weathered as it is. She insists it not be overcome. 

“Racism and white supremacy are still reigning outside the window where I am,” she said, “but in that moment in time, I’m choosing to celebrate myself as a human being, as a woman of color, as someone who is allowed to feel joy for once, instead of this despair.”

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