Posted on: October 8, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Photo by Marcus Collins

Moraine counselor Shanya Gray leads a discussion of how racism affects mental health.


By Rosie Finnegan, JRN 111 Student

Racism can manifest as a trauma for people that becomes ingrained in their DNA, being passed down for generations, says Moraine Valley counselor Shanya Gray.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week at Moraine, Gray held a workshop Thursday in room S223 to discuss how racism affects mental health.

“In our community and society we’ve been through a lot in the last year, two years especially,” Gray said. “We really haven’t started to talk about, for people affected by racism, how their mental health is affected.”

At one point in the discussion, Gray asked participants how they felt seeing stories of Black men being killed so often on the news.

“It feels like the targets on our backs are getting bigger,” said Tellis Parnell, a sophomore.

The classic definition of racism given by the Oxford English Dictionary is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” but Gray encourages people to dig deeper into the root of structural racism. She points to Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to be an Antiracist.” Kendi defines racism as “a merit of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”

It feels like the targets on our backs are getting bigger.”

Sophomore Tellis Parnell

“In our society we tend to look at racism on an individual level, but when we start to look at what racism looks like in our community and society, we start to realize that racism happens on many different levels,” Gray said. “Beyond just believing someone of a different group is inferior to you, it’s that ‘I’ve institutionalized it, I’ve created policies that also emphasize [racism].’”

The United States is laced with individual and systemic racism, Gray said, with many laws in this country actively criminalizing Black people. For example, the difference in jail time for possession of crack cocaine versus pure cocaine is a 100-1 ratio.

“Crack cocaine has been traditionally associated with Black people, and the pure cocaine tends to be [used by] more caucasians and wealthier people,” Gray said.

A lot of the time, capitalism is driven by racism, according to Gray. Black people are often targeted by employers, being told that they are not a suitable cultural fit for a company, or that their natural hair is not professional. These oppressive actions are often not directly attached to words about race in order to not be seen as harmful, but they do affect minority groups.

Another issue is health disparities between racial groups.

“See someone like Chadwick Boseman, for example, who died in his 40s from colon cancer,” Gray said. “Only recently have they changed the screening age. They used to say that 50 and above you would screen for colon cancer, [even though] it was known that Black males get colon cancer at a younger age. Only now are they changing the health insurance requirements.”

Racial trauma is being exposed to oppressive actions over and over again, and it begins to affect a person physically and mentally, Gray said. It can cause stress, fatigue, and many more symptoms that people experience even from individual trauma. Ongoing exposure to these stressors can often lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Research shows that these transgressions have actually affected the DNA of the people who have experienced them, according to Gray.

“Our DNA and our genes have actually changed,” Gray said. “If your ancestry was enslaved, it is very likely that your DNA changed along the way, so that trauma was passed down through generations not only in the way you were taught but in your DNA makeup.”