The Forest for The Trees: Shifting Perceptions of Black Cannabis Use

In light of the recent events surrounding police brutality and the contact that law enforcement makes with Black people, it is critical to consider the disproportionate sentencing and treatment of Blacks as a result of minor offenses involving small amounts of drugs, namely cannabis.

On May 1, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act. This legislative action effectively initiated concentrated punitive force in low income, high crime areas that happened to be populated by the Black community. Soon after, researchers, psychologists, and legal professionals began to notice the number and nature of arrests skyrocketed past those in Caucasian communities for similar offenses.

In response, states across the country have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana possession. For example, on November 4, 2018, the state of Massachusetts passed a bill to allow cannabis possession in small amounts. However, the ACLU has found that the changes in regulation have not made sufficient impact in changing arrest rates — Black people are still 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites.

What could be generating the gap between the two demographics? Harvard anthropologist Jason Silverstein asserts that a failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities. Cannabis is widely known to alleviate various medical ailments. In his study, Silverstein concludes that both Black and white people seem to think that Black people feel less pain. 

This sentiment is crucial when considering the verbiage used when describing the so-called “War On Drugs” in Black neighborhoods versus the “opioid epidemic” in white communities. This difference in perception means white offenders can more readily build a life after being in the legal system while Blacks have more difficulty when they leave.

Some states are at the forefront of change. Colorado has already taken action to grant pardons for cannabis convictions. Such convictions can interfere in achieving important milestones such as leases, mortgages, and jobs.

Pushes for empathy and investigation of the long-term effects of inequitable arrests can inform ways of creating a more even playing field in terms of economic equity for Blacks.

Tone Deaf: On Not Silencing Black Women

For this week’s post, I had planned to talk about the discussion between the rappers J.Cole and NoName, and share some insights I had on the whole dynamic. As I began to write, I began to think that the endeavor was incomplete and unfair. It was so because J. Cole is but one man, and this is an obstacle for the whole Black community.

So I am always woefully befuddled when Black women — in all of our intelligence, wit, and tenacity — are silenced. There are some men and women that police our tones, cross our boundaries, and dismiss our concerns.

Dismissal of Concerns

I was an avid hip-hop fan for many years. As a young woman, I was aware of the charged lyrics, and like many female fans, struggled to grapple with what those messages meant for my self-esteem, self-image. In maturity, I was lucky enough to meet some of the faces that I idolized, and on the whole, they were not what their personas projected at all. Some of them had families; many of them were thoughtful and well-spoken.

I’d had an acquaintance who was a promoter. He had worked in the industry, and one day I’d had an idea that was bubbling within for many months at that point — a hip hop benefit concert. At the time, that idea was quite popular, but in this case, there was one problem.

The concert was for rape victims, primarily women.

I watched his face morph from excitement to reluctance in about ten seconds flat. The lesson I’d learned at that moment is that women, particularly Black women, are expected to offer others support, but we are not allowed to ask for or demand reciprocity. This was before the MeToo movement, but the same inability to honor and respond to the concerns of Black women persists.

Those who we petition often demand that we do so in a docile, even sexual manner to “soften the blow.” Often it makes me want to ask these individuals if they think that our rapists, killers, and oppressors try to soften the blow. This is why tone policing comes across as ludicrous, at best. If your house is on fire, you are going to scream for everyone to evacuate. It wouldn’t matter who was comfortable with your message. It would be truth. You would not “wait your turn.”

Waiting Your Turn

Another challenge with waiting our turn as Black women are that it is rarely ever our turn to speak. As the world rightfully became incensed over George Floyd’s death, other names are mentioned less like Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and Renisha McBride, although they are no less important. When Black women build momentum around the causes that are dearest to them, the language, mannerisms, strategy, and execution are often co-opted by others, most often without credit, for movements exclusive of Black women.

Black women need to continue to speak up on a day-to-day basis on matters like disparities in pharmaceutical treatments of cancer and other illnesses that plague the Black community. We require tutoring assistance for us or our children in school, live in food deserts, have restricted access to potable water in addition to other needs, and we can’t turn the volume down.

However, we need every voice — especially those of Black men — to join ours, just as we have lent our voices for their concerns.

Every time a Black woman dies in labor, it is our turn to speak up.

Secrets to Another Perception: How to Decenter in Difficult Times

One of the keys to effective decentering is cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness is important because it allows us to become aware of the events, emotions, and thoughts that are occurring within and around us. Often, when one speaks of mindfulness, one can conjure visions of a Buddhist master, but the truth is anyone can achieve satisfying, powerful clarity through this practice.

The Self

The idea of The Self is an important one. It helps us to navigate a world where it is sometimes difficult to understand the place your dreams, desires, motivations, worries, and worldview start and end. If you are not aware of the nuances of this, you may need or demand too much or too little support from others, or they may ask too much or too little of you. 

The sense of The Self also harbors fear. Fear can be a good thing — evolutionarily, fear has kept us from being attacked by predators. However, too much anxiety can interfere with our emotional and psychological growth. It also fosters rash decision making and inability to establish long-lasting and trusting relationships with others. 

One example of this is the police officer that allows fear to cloud their judgment and ascribe far more danger to a citizen than necessary. When a person has this mindset supported by others that look like them, either by race or wearing a uniform, there is little incentive to stop and examine the circumstances through another lens. However, this support can prove to hinder your growth. When you are most comfortable and feel most supported is when you should decenter.

How to Decenter

One of the quickest ways of maintaining a decentered state is a routine meditation practice. Studies show that meditation reroutes pathways in the brain and reduces stress. Stress can aggravate and prolong feelings of fear, aggression, and unworthiness. While there are many books and videos on meditation, meditation does not have to be a process in sitting still and breathing.

The reason breathing is crucial is that, apart from the physiological changes when more oxygen enters the brain, breath is a repetitive movement. 

Meditation is a process of cultivating what psychologists call “flow.” Flow characterizes what laypeople call being in the zone. Any athlete, artist, or another person that relies on the repetition of their skill can report a sense of peace when they “get in their zone.” Getting in the zone provides an acute sense of clarity seldom found in other activities. 

Some activities to get in the zone are:

Visual art

Breath

Daydreaming

Dance

Music

Discussions and lecture

Writing

Reading

Why This Is Important

As a law enforcement officer, your job is dangerous. You probably work strange hours and have seen the worst of the human spirit. Because of this, you can end up overworked and fearful. However, there are other professions and life experiences that cause others to be overworked, stressed, and afraid too. 

If the police apprehend a woman, search her, and she physically retaliates, the police report says she was resisting arrest. The account may be accurate, but if you decentered yourself and listened to her story, you may find out that the way you gripped her arm was the same way her abusive ex-lover did two years ago. She suffers PTSD, and reacted the way she did because she was unable to decenter as well.

Decentering allows the public servant to detach and offer more effective service. It also allows the officer to see that decentering is part of his or her job. The “resist to arrest” no longer becomes about “degenerate citizens” but more about understanding how to diffuse a contentious situation.

Overcoming Mental Enslavement: A Practice in Decentering

You don’t have to believe everything you think. 

Many of our psychological schemas concerning the way the world works are often based on second and third-hand information. We then take these paradigms and apply them to most of the areas of life, without testing their effectiveness. 

Some of us take certain ideologies that we know to be false and force-fit them into our realities, causing undue and sometimes unwitting harm to ourselves and others. These behaviors become habits and then the habits — through repetition — become deeply ingrained, making it difficult to perceive any other method of accomplishing our goals. When solving a problem, it is important to remember to decenter.

Photo by Godfried VanMoorsel for Living Artist Project

What is decentering?

According to the American Psychology Association, decentering is:

n.

1. any of a variety of techniques aimed at changing one’s centered thinking (i.e., focus on only one salient feature at a time, to the total exclusion of other important characteristics) to openminded thinking. 

2. dissolution of unity between self and identity. 

3. see decentration. —decenter vb.

In other words, decentering yourself does not mean that you should neglect yourself, but consider other viewpoints as you work to solve a problem. In the case of healing our relationships with others, we want to “put ourselves into the other person’s shoes.”

However, changing behaviors can be threatening for some. It can mean a loss of comfort or some other benefit. Or it can mean gaining something, but we don’t know what it is to gain yet. These fears come from the human mind wanting circumstances, relationships, and resources to remain stable and measured. Still, decentering does not necessarily translate to destabilization. The idea that decentering the needs, wants, and agendas of a specific collection of individuals will destabilize their resources is flawed.

Perhaps the number one rebuttal to the expression Black Lives Matter is that All Lives Matter. This is an attempt at circumventing decentering. An extension of this is conflating the focus of other disadvantaged groups with the BLM movement. While there is some overlap between various groups, the problem with this response is the refusal to center the concerns of BLM when we discuss pertinent topics, as if this movement needs to be qualified by other groups with the same aims.

A peculiar assumption is if a person says that Black Lives Matter, they must mean that Only Black Lives Matter or Only American Black Lives Matter. This assumption illuminates the differences in schools of thought: when a white supremacist asserts All Lives Matter, they mean All White Lives Matter and That’s All That Should Matter. With this assertion, only caucasian individuals are people and have lives. Everyone else just exists. 

Centering does not have to be a bad thing. We center patients when they are in the hospital, and center our children when they are upset or scared. However, centering can be problematic when taken out of proportion, as in the case of white nationalists. White people have legitimate concerns and are the majority of the population in this country. That does not mean their lived experiences apply to everyone else’s life.

By white supremacists foisting psychological projection onto others, the aims of the Black Live Matter movement becomes problematic. Then it is called Black Nationalism. Many of our ancestors have been refashioned through revisionist history to be separatists, mercenaries, and boogeymen, because of the inability to decenter.

What are the benefits of decentering?

One of the main benefits of decentering is enriching your life with the stories, knowledge, and voices that may or may not be like you in some way. You do not have to walk in fear that someone is going to forcefully relieve you of something that can’t be taken. Fear can be a prison. In the next article, I discuss how to decenter.

Photo by Godfried VanMoorsel for Living Artist Project

8 Tips to Cultivating Consistently Strong Allyship

Read the news from many media outlets, or purchase anything at all, you may find political commentators and businesses stating their support of the Black community in light of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. On one hand, one can be filled with hope that we can stand in solidarity against racism, sexism, and police brutality, but on the other, there are so many questions that arise.

One, in particular, is: Why do the same pundits struggle with being as vocal about the quotidian challenges that disproportionately face the black community? We face a higher maternal death rate, unjust treatment in the penal system, the discrepancy in generational wealth, and more daily. What are you doing to be a consistent ally?

But what does ‘being an ally’ mean? Does it mean that you as a business owner say that you stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement while not doing much else to alleviate injustices that Black and other underrepresented people face?

I hope that it means something else. Here are some ideas of what I think it might mean:

  • Correct others on stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices even when a member of the group you are defending is not present. It also means accepting correction from members of the party whom you are trying to advocate.
  • Hold space for opinions, emotions, grievances, and experiences that are not your own, without trying to invalidate or minimize the importance of them.
  • Offer full redress to those being harmed, and being fully transparent about your expectations concerning interactions — business and otherwise — with others. An example of this is realizing that certain rules and regulations in various institutions borne of one culture may muzzle the concerns and wishes of another, without making excuses about it.
  • Honor the ingenuity, business-savvy, beauty, and other traits of a group by extending proper compensation, protection of intellectual rights, and historical consideration as others.
  • Be self-motivated to become informed on the social mores, particular cultural practices, psychology, history, economics, and other facets of a particular population that have an impact on the role the group has in mainstream society. It means realizing that even though the group may be a “minority,” it is still a heterogeneous demographic that holds various ideologies by different factions within it.
  • Resist aggression and micro-aggression s through your behavior: ask yourself if you have to see, touch, say, hear, or otherwise assuage your curiosity or fear about an individual at that person’s expense. An example of this is calling the police on a person who has done nothing wrong, or “asking” to occupy personal space in a way that makes the person uncomfortable.
  • Understand that the law is not always just. For example, many citizens do not know that Miranda rights are not required to be read in every situation. In a similar vein, the law is not always applied reasonably, as studies have shown that darker-skinned defendants tend to receive more unfair treatment during processing and harsher sentencing when tried.
  • Do away with political cognitive dissonance: Our collective legislative and political workload increases when supposed allies vote for a candidate whose policies are known to unjustly target disadvantaged groups while espousing beliefs that everyone should be treated equally.
While this is not an exhaustive list, these are stepping stones to being an ally, which is a full-time job. Being an ally is a full-time job because when you are a member of a disadvantaged group, the barriers that must be overcome are present on a day-to-day basis.

How to Maintain Mental Health Through Ritual

With unexpected changes happening every day, I’ve found that it’s important to find a routine or a ritual. For me, it is walking in nature to breathe the air that refreshes and heals, taking warm showers with luxurious soaps and salts that soften and cleanse, and drinking the teas that bring forth healing and wash the worries of the day away. These sensual indulgences link my body, mind, and spirit and allow for optimal psychological and spiritual health.

Mental health, our internal heaven, sometimes seems to elude us but is always available to us. A fragile, steadfast friend, it wants to stay with us — through connecting with our friends and our family, scribbling in a journal with tattered pages; a trusted and empathetic psychiatrist or counselor, or the paintbrushes tucked in our studio. 

Respite and Revival

These rituals simultaneously connect us to and vehemently release us from the realities of life, while life makes it possible to enjoy and revive our bodies and souls. With our staunch collective obsession of all that is new and theoretical in our Western society, coming back to that which is tried and true can be a welcome respite from the pressure to be different.

Still, a mysterious danger remains of being stuck in the past, present, or even future instead of being edified by it. We must embrace cycles in their full spectrum. Cycles are not just a hallmark of fertility although that is certainly significant; these cycles are cues that allow healing, sleep, emotional development and stability, calm. 

Alleviation of Emotional and Psychological Pain

These rituals and cycles — circling, and spiraling — undo the knots of symptoms such as anxiety and anger. Our internal revolutions unfurl the painful memories locked into our psyche and cells and are expressed as inflammation. Whether you call these experiences cytokines or prostaglandins, rituals to remove stress can stop the overabundance of pain.

We also stop the pain with laughter, the ultimate healing ritual amid the friction that can be described as systematic subjugation. I laugh with my ancestors: they get the joke, the absurdity that we should have to fight oppressive forces all this time.

Finding my center

My rituals help me to tap within, to figure out why we do what we do. Where do we fit into the seeming madness of the world? It seems like we all have desires that appear to be at odds with each other, yet make up a composite mosaic that is reflective of our collective experience.