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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jess

Why I Left Ohio and Never Looked Back....

No, I'm not an Ohio native; I just happened to spend four years of my life there as a result of unpredictable education-based events. I completed my higher education in California, my home state. After living in California for 30 years of my life, I decided to let life take me to the DC Metro area where I lived for two years prior to moving to OH. Ohio was my home for four years, and nearly everyday I was there, I counted down to some unknown time that I knew would be my departure.

I had been to Ohio a few times prior to my move, as I have family there. When it became an option to apply to psychology internships (somewhat similar to the concept of a medical residency), I was applying any and everywhere as it was my third time going through the dreaded "Match." (That in and of itself, was a different type of trauma). During my interview of what resulted in my internship placement, my supervisor very clearly and genuinely asked me how I take care of myself when in potentially racist climates. That isn't exactly how she worded it, but she made a point to ask me that twice during the interview. I was honest; I essentially said that having community and support systems in place was helpful and that having been through several experiences at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) gave me experience at being an "expert" of handling myself when experiencing racism. To this day, I am grateful for her, but there is no way to prepare oneself for the type of racial trauma that was experienced and endured to get through the end of the year.

I want to preface this by acknowledging the family and friendships I had and built while there. Close relationships with my cousins, morning workouts with a fellow community of former athletes, building supportive friendships, eventually becoming connected with some members of the Ohio Psychological Association and getting my dog were probably the things that served as buffers to my experiences there. I should also say that I had come to the internship phase of my journey with already experiencing a fair amount of trauma in my academic journey to that point. As I referenced above, the Match was devastating; I felt I worked hard to make myself competitive, completed my dissertation "on time," and had a significant amount of experience coming in having completed a master's degree prior to the doctorate program. There was also a fair amount of triggering events experienced from faculty members who suffered from their own histories of racism (whether aware or not). I'm grateful for the opportunities that made space for healing and correction. Others taught me to keep my distance.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, most black people can recall first experiences of racism starting from a very young age. You learn to "take the temperature" of the climate you are in, if and when you call it out, how to assess your safety, and becoming aware of the exhaustion and numbness that can occur as a result. Living in Ohio for those four years was exhausting in a way I hadn't realized until I left. My internship turned out to be the pinnacle of what already felt like a series of toxic, racially charged experiences in my academic journey. It was located in a smaller, rural town that was predominately republican. Many staff members had limited history and exposure to people of color and often made comments about "not seeing color," or openly discussing their personal disdain for an entire group of people because of their experiences with one member of the race. Clients were often shocked to see me in my black skin when they would come in for treatment. One that will always stick with me was a young woman who hadn't completed school, was functionally illiterate and made very hateful remarks about black people and skin color. I processed the incident with my supervisor who encouraged me to process it in group supervision. To say that it was a risk is an understatement. I knew that people generally cared about me in the office; but I could simultaneously feel the discomfort and silence from never having to deal with racism issues before. The comment was clearly a result of the client's trauma, as I argue that to be racist comes with a need to heal as well. I often turned down invitations to hang out with white peers and colleagues, because some of the places they wanted to go, I simply didn't feel safe and didn't know how or have the energy to express that. The one time I did say yes, I quickly regretted it. I overheard some derogatory comments made by some of the patrons and shortly after went straight to my car and home.

Michelle Obama has commented about her experience leaving the White House in the helicopter; she stated that she sobbed for a least 30 minutes as she was finally able to release the pressure that came with trying to be perfect for eight years. I am in know way comparing my journey to being a Black First Lady of the U.S., but I can understand her need to release that built up pain, pressure, fear, and trauma. On the last day of my internship, I remember I was probably like an anxious, annoying child, as I probably asked my supervisor a good four or five times throughout the day if I was clear to leave. When I got in my car and drove away for the last time, I cried the whole drive home (about a 25 minute drive). My body was exhausted from holding in the stress from Sept 1 2014, through Aug 31, 2015. I had survived my degree program and one of the hardest years of my life. I don't even recall what I did the rest of that day.

Many of these themes continued throughout my time at my post-doc and other professional and public settings. I recall experiencing some aggressive drivers with confederate flags on the back of their pick-ups. I recall getting random, bogus complaints from neighbors in my apartment complex; thankfully the property manager knew me well enough to know they weren't consistent with my time living there and even she being white suspected the "complainers" were racist. I recall instances of being dismissed in various retail or community settings. At some point they become countless, numbing events that eventually result in survival mode.

This is not to minimize the presence of racism throughout the country; this is to highlight the density and frequency at which it was experienced, not uncommon in some parts of the country more than others. I recall that I would leave any opportunity I could, even if it was a quick drive to Pittsburgh to visit family. During one of my visits back to DC, I specifically recall texting my father upon arrival and commenting to him the notable shift in my energy when getting on the metro train from the airport. I found myself literally exhaling and my physical body becoming less tense by merely being in the company of so many other Black folx. As I mentioned prior I grew up in California, specifically Vallejo, located in the Northeast Bay Area. I was exposed to several ethnicities in the Bay Area, but perhaps most notable to me was growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Being among so many other Black people was what I knew I needed to get back to in order to feel that I once again belonged and could get back to my "baseline" of safety awareness vs. the persistent vigilance I found myself developing in Ohio. My childhood was filled with love, community, feeling seen, and supported. I realized I needed that again as an adult and am happy to have created that for myself in the DC Metro Area.

It has now been nearly two and a half years since I moved to DC. I suppose the current election cycle has reminded me of these events in a more salient manner than normal. I also recently saw a 'proud boys' march on Facebook that occurred a mile and a half from my old apartment in Ohio. Some may think that I am shaming Ohio or many of the great people that do actually live there; that is not my goal. This is also not to absolve the Bay Area of the racism that is embedded there. I can only speak for my experience based on my familial, social context. I am also certain that I am not alone in some of the experiences I mentioned throughout my academic journey. Staying connected to peers in similar circumstances was also an imperative lifeline. I hope that my sharing is helpful to others to recognize, face, and begin healing from traumatic experiences. I hope that others can appreciate my experience and perhaps reflect and learn how to show up differently in the future.

To my Ohio family, friends, workout buddies, and OPA folks- THANK YOU.

Be safe, ya'll!

Dr. Jess

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