Learning about the history of systemic racism, particularly in the mental health system, is key to creating a mentally healthier world, according to Mental Health America (MHA). However, lost in the constant onslaught of discussions and depictions of Black trauma is the rich culture and joy that are a vital part of the Black experience. 

MHA hosted a discussion-based webinar titled, “Black Joy: Impacting the Mental Health of Black Communities,” during which panelists shared how they define success, where they find joy, and how Black culture contributes to healing.

“It’s important to be aware of the struggles that Black communities have faced and still currently face on a daily basis, but it’s also important to acknowledge that trauma is not the only aspect of being Black in America,” said Jackie Zimmerman, the discussion’s moderator. “There are so many rich stories of successes, strengths, and joy that are often overlooked.”

Redefining Success

Though the panelists come from different backgrounds, they share a common sentiment: that success and wealth look differently for them as Black women than it does for their white counterparts. Morgann Noble, a sophomore marketing major at Howard University, expressed that people often focus on stories of Black success as an exception to a rule.

For example, Noble explained, Black students who are first-generation college students are often regarded as a pioneer of their family just for getting an education. But as a sixth-generation historically-Black college and university (HBCU) student who comes from a long line of educators, Noble points out that this is a misconception. “For a lot of families that’s not the case, so I love to tell people that about my family,” she said.

Ayana Malone, director of training and education for Onyx Therapy Group, attributed this sort of misconception to confirmation bias. “One of the quickest ways that our Black joy is robbed is through confirmation bias,” she said, explaining that a constant media influx of Black people in negative experiences creates a narrative that becomes familiarized. “We hear more about Black men in prison, because in our society it is just confirming the bias that is already there. They don’t want to talk about the successes, the positives.”

Malone, also a current HBCU attendee, wants to highlight the idea of cultural wealth to challenge the deficit framing surrounding Black stories. Generational wealth is often discussed in terms of inherited financial wealth, but Malone urges people to not overlook the linguistic, social, and cultural capital possessed by and passed down through Black families.

Overall, the panelists agreed that it’s crucial for people of color to redefine how they view success. Minaa B., a licensed mental health professional and founder of Minaa B. Consulting, is the first person in her family to graduate from undergraduate and receive a master’s degree. Her parents migrated to America from Panama, her father a butcher and her mother a maid.

Rather than think of herself as a success due to her education, in contrast to her parents, she recognizes and admires the fact that they migrated to a country that does not warmly welcome people of color and put in the labor to give her the life she has.

“I don’t see my success as, ‘I broke generational dysfunction,’” she said. “I see my success as an extension of the hard work my parents put in, their efficacy, their advocacy for themselves, and their ability to say, ‘I’m going to do the hard thing to continue to build my family and put food on their plates.’ That is success to me, and I use that as a framework to continue to build my life.”

Radiance Basden, a well-being consultant, life coach, and NASM-certified personal trainer, believes that wealth and success also lie in healing from the constant stress Black people, especially women, face. When entire lifetimes throughout multiple generations of Black families are impacted daily by racism, and women additionally face gender-based discrimination and violence, “resilience” becomes integral to one’s identity and can feel more like a detriment than an attribute. 

“We always have these words tied to us, that we’re ‘resilient’ and we’re ‘strong’, and that is true, but we also need to be investing within ourselves and building wealth within our bodies,” she said. “When you feel safe within yourself, that is wealth times three.”

Marlisa Nixon, director of employee experience and DEI lead facilitator at Aspire Behavioral Health, echoed Basden’s sentiment, sharing that healing is the ability to invest in our families, especially children and seniors, and create space for multi-generational healing.

Finding Joy in Living Authentically

In addition to redefining success, the panelists stressed the importance of setting limits to protect and invest in yourself and your joy. A critical part of this process is granting yourself permission to rest and show up exactly as you are.

Basden recalled that her family was never able to live on purpose, instead living robotically and constantly grinding to work and take care of the kids. Now, she breaks this cycle by recognizing her limits, giving herself permission to rest, and showing other Black women they are granted the same freedom. “Me living in my authenticity, resting and not being in grind mode all the time, gives others permission to live in theirs,” she said. “That brings me joy: living out loud on purpose.”

For Minaa B., this means challenging her natural inclination to people please. According to her, Black families and Black women especially struggle to live authentically because they are used to being scrutinized and labeled aggressive or angry. She has had to intentionally unlearn the urge to people please and recognize that others’ discomfort is not her responsibility.

“When our nervous system gets dysregulated, we engage in fawning mode, which a lot of people don’t realize is a stress response,” she said. “We start to cope by pleasing other people, putting their emotions on a pedestal, being responsible for their feelings, and we engage in self neglect as a response. But it’s a survival mechanism. It took a lot of years, practice, and discomfort for me to finally be able to live in a place where I can say no and be okay with you being upset.”

As she pointed out, however, it is impossible to thrive while living in a state of chronic self-sacrifice and self-neglect. She wants others to understand that boundaries aren’t mean, they are an act of community care. Saying no and setting boundaries is a favor to both her and those she is addressing, as it allows her to protect and respect her authentic self and her needs.

“I’d rather be wounded by speaking up and letting you know what my truth is and what I’m willing to tolerate, versus allowing you permission to continue to treat me however it is you feel you want to treat me,” she said. “If you are committed to seeing me through the lens of a stereotype, that is your antiracist work to do, not mine.”

As an adolescent, Noble struggled to live authentically because her interests did not fall into these stereotypes; Black kids thought she was “too white” but white kids thought she wasn’t “Black enough.” Living near Howard’s campus, visiting during her mom’s Howard days, and eventually attending the school herself, she finally saw other Black girls who looked like her engaging with “white” interests, normalizing and affirming the identity she struggled with growing up.

“It made me think that there’s nothing wrong with the things that I like, my hobbies, what I enjoy doing — it all makes me who I am,” she said. Her exposure to not only new Black experiences but also appearances such as different body types, skin tones, and hair styles helped her feel comfortable about being authentic about her own identity without fear of it being judged anymore.

Noble recently had the privilege of being part of Dove’s “Real Cost of Beauty” campaign, which focuses on loving yourself despite appearance-based hate. As part of the campaign, she spoke to how the comments she grew up with, she eventually learned, came from the idea of Black people as a monolith, and how her experience at Howard helped debunk these stereotypes and affirm her joy in her authenticity.

She has since started her own business motivationally speaking and helping other young girls, femmes, and people of color navigate similar experiences. Sharing her story with educators in her old school district, she realized these issues don’t just affect young women, but run deep throughout generations.

“One of the things that really moved me was a bunch of the older Black women in the room started crying when I started telling my story,” she said. “It made me emotional myself because it made me think that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, this is why I’m here, this is why I’m able to share what I am. That’s what’s bringing me joy right now.”

Cultural Healing

Experiences like Noble’s and the rest of the panel demonstrate how internalized racism is even among Black communities and how much work is left to unlearn and relearn how to live authentically – and more importantly, how to be comfortable in that authenticity.

Minaa B. pointed out that data and clinical conversations surrounding mental health are often conducted through a lens of whiteness. Because people of color have consistently been largely left out of mental health research, as have ancestral and cultural factors that impact mental health, traditional methods of acknowledging and treating mental illness may not be effective.

Instead, she urges people of color to look inward and consider what aspects of their culture may offer healing that physicians may overlook. One example is the Black cookout, which is not just a summer gathering over food but an act of togetherness and community care.

For Basden, getting in touch with her culture meant going back to her roots – literally. In the throes of burnout from her corporate job, she decided to spend eight weeks traveling through Africa, eventually resigning from her job while staying in Ethiopia.

“Once I really saw my culture and how they live and how their wealth is true wealth, and how it was so vastly different from everything that I had experienced here in this corporate setting, I really understood the richness that’s inside me,” she said.

While Basden’s travels allowed her to reconnect with her true self, Nixon’s culture helped her redefine herself entirely. As a Black woman in the south living in long-term recovery, she had to learn through the help of her community that she didn’t need her old self back.

“I no longer fit into that broken Marlisa,” she said. “I am now a new woman and I get to be the best version of me based on the things my culture and community have helped me to redesign and reshape. What brings joy to me today is the passion and purpose around loving the skin I’m in today.”

For Malone, joy itself is an act of resilience for Black Americans. Humor allows people to cope by holding space for trauma and the work left to be done, as well as the fleeting moments of joy that keep us present. As a result, laughter helps lighten the load of generations of racism and trauma, and reinvigorates us for the continued fight ahead.

“We cannot choose to live in our trauma,” she said. “We have to live in those moments of joy when they come. Just because you’re feeling joyful and light and lifted doesn’t mean you don’t care about the things happening in this world. Our culture and our resiliency has really taught me that over the years. I don’t have to feel guilty about feeling joyful.”

“It can be hard to find joy on a larger forum when the world was not designed for our joy — society is not designed for Black people’s joy, it is designed for our trauma,” Malone continued. “Finding those little pockets of joy, even though you are not in your most self-actualized, perfected state that you want to be in – don’t wait for it. Don’t reschedule your joy, experience it right now.” 

Watch “Black Joy: Impacting the Mental Health of Black Communities” on YouTube.