Health and wellness was an apt theme for last month’s Black History Month. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing social unrest have had a significant impact on the personal and professional lives of the Black community—and the ramifications aren’t often highlighted.
There is fear and a long-held stigma in the Black community when it comes to seeking mental health care. This means Black people are less likely to seek help when they experience things like depression and anxiety. Their reasoning may include thoughts like, “If I go to therapy, it means I don’t have enough faith,” “I should keep it in the family,” or “Our ancestors have been through much worse.”
After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black people experienced a significant increase in anxiety and depression. In fact, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that, within a week of George Floyd’s death, the Black community was experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
The need is there. It’s time that the legal profession shines a spotlight on the unique health and well-being struggles of this community and learns how to support our colleagues in ways that work for them.
Unique stressors for Black attorneys
These stressors surface often in the legal profession. During a recent Clifford Law event, Leslie Davis, CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF), shared some examples. When showing up for a deposition at a law firm, she was mistaken for a court reporter and told where to set up her equipment. In addition, judges have assumed she was a litigant in court and advised her to let them know when her lawyer arrived.
While these incidents alone are significant, but when they’re compounded with similar experiences over a lifetime, people can experience what is known as the “weathering effect.”
Weathering and Black attorneys
Dr. Arline Geronimus coined the term “weathering effect” to evoke the emotional erosion that comes with the constant stress of racism. According to Geronimus, who is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, weathering is like playing Jenga, and experiencing a stressor is pulling one block out at a time.
After some time, so many blocks that are essential to a person’s health and well-being have been removed that they collapse. In reality, research has shown that stress can lead to premature biological aging and even worse health outcomes for Black people.
The Commission’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager Kendra Abercrombie explained weathering like this:
“For me, weathering can be tied to early aging due to the long-term health impacts of dealing with racism. For instance, after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, I was stressed out thinking about his family and also worried about my Black male friends in Georgia who like to run every day. It made me fearful for the future sons that I may bring into this world, elevating my stress levels and affecting my overall health.”
Ways to mitigate the weathering effect
It’s probably safe to say that most attorneys haven’t heard of the weathering effect; attorney Robert Clifford pointed this out during the Clifford Law event.
Black attorneys don’t often discuss the emotional impact of their stressors with others. Therefore, it’s particularly important that we educate ourselves on it rather than putting the onus on our Black colleagues.
The Clifford Law program provided several practical examples for doing so. In addition to Davis, Lindsey Draper, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at the Institute for Well-Being in Law, and Lea Gutierrez, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at the American Lung Association (formerly with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office), spoke on the panel.
Here are some of their recommendations for mitigating weathering in your Black colleagues:
- Research before you ask questions. Marginalized communities should not be responsible for educating you about their experiences.
- Seek out marginalized voices and perspectives. When in meetings, ask yourself whose perspectives are missing.
- Listen to understand rather than respond. To best support your colleagues, try to understand their perspectives.
- Use your privilege to help others (hold colleagues accountable and vocally support people from underrepresented groups).
- Lean into discomfort when you see inequities.
- If you make a mistake, own up to it and do better going forward.
These actions are doable and cost nothing. Yes, it will take time and practice to make these things a habit. However, the health and well-being of your Black attorney colleagues, as well as other people of color, depends on it.
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