Managing Anxiety in a White Supremacist World
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackmotherhood movement.
Given a chance, I’d summarize my youth and adolescence in three words: awkward, anxious, and ambivalent.
I moved through my formative years feeling like I was either a punchline or a problem to be solved, thanks to my awkwardness, “nontraditional” performance of Blackness, and my hair. My Black peers ridiculed my over-enthusiastic classroom engagement. My few white peers used me as an opportunity for fetishization, making me feel like a specimen to be dissected. The only consistent message I received is that something about me was “off.” And I was willing to accept this as absolute.
I paid for this internalization with gastrointestinal pain and headaches. There were countless days that my nervous stomach made me too sick to smile but not sick enough to miss the school bus. Missing school and having an extra day away from the teasing sounded great. Still, I knew acting out of fear would impact the three-person family, my mom, brother, and I had. I refused to rob them of rest and add letters of truancy to our growing pile of bills.
Knowing that I had to “make it” to make things better for my mom and brother taught me to lean into fear. But it also left me anxiously wondering what would happen if I failed and depressed when I missed my self-imposed standards of academic perfection. By the end of middle school, I was convinced the world could see through my façade of confidence and excellence. Multiple high schools solidified this fact. The familiar “help me, I’m falling” sensation of breathlessness that accompanied social situations stayed with me for years, reminding me that confidence was an act. I prayed respectability would save me. Naturally, my prayers went unanswered. My anxiety grew in the absence of answers.
Occasionally I wonder what radicalized me. I think it was that first accidental touch of my hair in its natural state my senior year. The curls in waves crawling together in pursuit of water spoke to me. It whispered to me of an Afrofuturist reality where my hair wasn’t my biggest life insecurity. I obliged by setting it free and allowing it to enter rooms regardless of my anxious fears. I learned of the societal investment that billions of dollars have in the stock of racial and gendered insecurity.
I went to university to study psychology to make sense of the world. I secretly hoped that I’d gain the tools to make sense of my brokenness. I found something inconclusive. The texts pathologized Blackness as a problem to be fixed but offered no solutions. The counseling center – a resource I couldn’t have accessed if tuition didn’t include a limited number of “free” sessions – was staffed by people who couldn’t relate to me. They suggested that I wasn’t entirely broken, but I wasn’t precisely “okay” either. Again, they didn’t know what was wrong.
But unexpectedly, my course curriculum, thanks to the infrequent presence of Black feminist theories, did. I remember reading Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and feeling visible for the first time. I thought back to the counselors and the messaging I held on to and wondered if I wasn’t a problem to be solved for the first time. What if, I wondered, my alternating cycles of anxiety and depression had been communicating that the society, not the self was flawed?
Unknowingly, I started to couple my anxiety and depression with my newfound analytical skills as tools to reconfigure my world. My readings suggested that my peers’ response was a projection of what we were all struggling to navigate—a white supremacist society. I learned to pay serious attention to the situations, environments, and types of people who triggered my feelings of discomfort and ask why. Of course, my growth wasn’t linear. Marriage, motherhood, and loss forced me towards a reconfiguration of my dreams. These events meant slowing down but also speeding up because others depended on me.
When I noticed that I was struggling more frequently, I saw therapists and learned to survive on their words’ marginal assistance. With a better sense of who I was, I took what I could and left the rest.
There are bad days. But each time I face a situation that causes me fear, I’m reassured that I’m a step closer to who I want to be in the world. I continue to see my mental health as my secret weapon aimed at keeping me safe. I made a pact to myself to listen when something doesn’t feel right. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
About six months ago, I found a Black woman counselor who understood that it wasn’t me; it was the world that is broken. It was immensely freeing to find someone who understood the weight of the burden I was carrying. When we talk, her words affirm me, like Audre, in a way the world rarely does.
But I’m different now. I understand I’m not a problem to be solved. I’m a person who is coping as they work to change a broken society. And when the things I love are the triggers of the bad feelings, I think back to that awkward young girl being carried away by the waves of her hair for the first time. And I run towards them.