One social worker’s look at the effects of racism and sexism on the mental health of young black girls.
In the summer of 1990, I served as a camp counselor at Camp Deerpark, a camp owned by the New York City Mennonite churches located in Westbrookville, New York.
The girls in my cabin, all African-American, were ages 10–11, and each night we sat in a circle on the floor for our nightly cabin devotions. This was a special time when we would meet to talk about what we learned at campfire, to review our Bible verses and to share the things that were on our hearts to pray about.
As I listened to the stories of these girls, I realized the issues of sexual violence, physical abuse and rejection had formed an oppressive cloud over these beautiful young souls that should have been filled with joy, laughter and childlike innocence. As I observed their interactions, I saw that these girls were already identifying themselves according to their sexual body parts, hair texture and the color of their skin.
The young African-American boys at the camp related to the girls in sexualized and aggressive ways. The girls were viewed as the “preys” or “victims” in their daily social interactions. I wondered how the need to always be on the defense was affecting the girls’ mental states.
Were they living in a state of “sustained arrest,” just waiting for the other shoe to drop? Were these racial and sexist microaggressions causing them to be re-traumatized?
At night, the girls showed signs of anxiety and depression. I noted sleep disturbances and eating disorders as well as severe mood swings within the group. Six out of the 10 girls had admitted that they experienced suicidal ideations.
After my experience at Camp Deerpark, I wanted to continue to work with black girls to help them overcome the obstacles of racism and gender based discrimination. I started a girls group at Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church, which has now evolved into Destiny’s Daughters Empowerment Ministry — a therapeutic leadership program in Harlem.
I was convinced that African-American girls were experiencing a mental health crisis that correlated with the intersectionality of race and gender. I also began to study how historical trauma and post-traumatic slave syndrome related to the mental health of black girls.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Signs of good mental health include self-acceptance, positive relationships and a sense of control of one’s environment. Yet, I’ve often wondered, are black girls experiencing self-acceptance, positive relationships and a sense of control of their environment?
“Growing up as an African-American girl in my inner urban community, I was always being held to some impossible standard. Men would always make lewd sexual comments about my physical appearance as early as the age of 13,” said Amber Castle, a member of Infinity Mennonite Church in Harlem and a former Deerpark camper.
“If they weren’t making cringing cat calls, then they made belittling statements about my intelligence. I was never allowed to be a regular girl without being reminded of my place as a woman. In this patriarchal society, even now as a grown successful woman, who is well-traveled, educated and hardworking, I am still viewed as a sex object … never allowed to have a mind of my own,” she continued.
African-American girls have the burden of learning to maneuver through a “double identity” that is discriminated against for being both female and black.
“Being an African-American woman mentally causes me to feel insignificant, unheard and unappreciated for the mind I have, for the things I can create and for the people I can help,” Castle said.
“I am a double minority and I will carry that till the day I am diminished to ashes. I feel that every day. Even though I strive to rise about these challenges, they make me tired.”
When I listen to Castle’s experience, I hear feelings of despair, fear and anger. It is not surprising that there has been an increase in African-American girls being diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Anxiety Disorder and even Major Depression. Suicide rates among African-American girls have increased along with the rise in the discipline and detention of girls in schools and in the criminal justice system.
Is the manner in which black girls are viewed in society beginning to dictate the image that black girls have of themselves? Throughout history, African-American girls have been categorized as hypersexual, angry and not as intelligent as their white counterparts. Black girls have also been affected by the societal prejudices against black women,being labeled a “Jezebel,” “welfare queen,” “angry black woman” or “matriarch.”
The media perpetuates these images, and girls are constantly being bombarded with them.
Aura Espinosa-Deer, a former Deerpark camper and current Destiny’s Daughters leader, reflected on recognizing the disparity of race and gender she experienced as a young black girl.
“Believe it or not, although I was only 12, I noticed and vocalized the disparity. It was a problem for me. There were the white girls — gentle and precious, Latinas — spicy and fast and then the black girls — angry and aggressive — in a group to ourselves,” she said. “We didn’t fit in and were not accepted. I remember feeling like I had to be aggressive, show I was intelligent and fight for my rights. I also remember not being beautiful … only if I had light skin and long hair. Those were the only black girls that any of the boys liked.”
So what are the long-term effects of racism and sexism on the mental health of black girls? In my interviews with Destiny’s Daughters members, I noted a high risk of lasting psychological damage.
Velvet Taylor remembers being told she was “less than or less beautiful than a fair-skinned person …That I should be grateful that someone wants to sexually assault me, because that is what I am made for. These are the things that I deal with every day of my life. It angers me. It feels endless and it feels as if it will never change. So if it will never change then I’m afraid that I will be angry forever.”
Womanist scholars, mental health practitioners and social researchers are beginning to recognize the need to partner in a multidisciplinary process to address and intervene on behalf of the mental health of African-American girls. I would invite the church community to also become advocates for the rights and well-being of these girls who were created “fearfully and wonderfully” in the image of God.
Civil rights activist, womanist and Harlem-born poet, Audre Lorde stated that, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
We must empower black girls to redefine themselves; to not just survive, but to thrive and to freely contribute all of their creativity, intellect and optimism to the world.
Melody M. Pannell is an assistant professor of social work at Eastern Mennonite University and the founder and executive director of Destiny’s Daughters Empowerment Ministry. It is her life mission to embody practical theology.