Days ago, gut-wrenching images of U.S. Border Patrol on horseback with whips in hand, chasing after Haitian migrants hit the internet and caused rightful outrage. The overwhelming response has been of anger and disgust, with many flocking to social media to share their feelings. Walter T. Geer wrote in response to the images, “when we say we are tired and exhausted, or emotionally drained, please remember that before we are logging into email and jumping on calls with you, we are waking up to these types of visuals on social media and the news.” John Graham Jr. shared “just know that your Black employees are seeing these images hitting their social media feeds and are watching in horror as [Texas] showcases its barbaric response to Black asylum seekers from Haiti.” Black trauma porn, or what can be thought of as “media that showcases a group’s pain and trauma in excessive amounts for the sake of entertainment” seems to be never-ending. How are Black people impacted by the repeated trauma that is inescapable on one’s TV and timeline? How do Black employees cope after repeated racial mega-threats? Denise Branch is an anti-racism educator who consults with organizations to develop “anti-racist people, programming, partnerships, purchasing, philanthropy, policy, and practices.” In an email, Denise shared her thoughts about the treatment of Haitian migrants, the pervasive nature of anti-blackness, and what she feels companies should be asking to cultivate safer spaces for Black employees.
Janice Gassam Asare: What were your initial feelings and thoughts when you saw the recent images that have been circulating of [U.S.] Border Patrol holding whips while chasing after Haitian migrants?
Denise Branch: My immediate thoughts were of our ancestors’ terrifying experiences with slave patrols—the organized groups of armed white men who monitored their movements, enforced discipline upon Black slaves and formed river patrols to prevent their escape. The border patrol image was what I’d call white supremacy and whips. I felt equally traumatized and triggered to reminiscence about of our ancestors’ bloodied backs and the trauma whipping caused them. The history of the white man’s whip is full of Black blood. Centuries ago, American law provided slaves with no protection from the white man’s whip. After surviving and not surviving centuries of whippings, Black people are still fighting the white man’s whip today. The main method used to control the behavior of slaves during slavery was the threat of having them whipped…who in the 21st century would authorize such behavior and actions that are connected to historical atrocities against Black bodies? The anti-black racism, with a smile on the border patrol faces were beyond disgusting. They seemed to have been enjoying using the whips.
Our Black Haitian brothers and sisters were holding out their bodies for inclusion and belonging, but instead of being included and [treated] with belonging, they were whipped with the wounds of America’s past anti-black racism…America doesn’t see their humanity. America doesn’t think they belong. Afghans were flown in to be given inclusion and belonging. Haitians were flown out without inclusion and belonging. President Joe Biden [is] the same Joe Biden Black America made president…and ignored Black Americans urgent call-in response to America’s mistreatment of Black Haitian migrants. He and VP Harris should have addressed this issue on day one. America has a history of turning its back on anything Black. It should be illegal for America to impose stricter migration restrictions on people from Black countries [compared to] migrants from non-black countries. Where are the ‘this isn’t who we are,’ ‘we’re all in this together,’ and ‘we’re all the human race’ people? This is exactly who America is, we’re not all in this together and all races are not treated like humans. There is no way that America and Americans still have no idea [that] what they’re doing to Black people is inhumane. We can’t unsee the anti-black racism, and we can’t unhear the anti-black racism heard by border patrol. The Black community must become laser focused on practicing self-preservation in the continued onslaught of violence against Black bodies.
Asare: Many companies need guidance on how to support Black employees who, after seeing these images, are being re-traumatized. What suggestions can you offer about how companies can do this?
Branch: That’s a great question but because the anti-racism educator and consultant space is already being colonized with racial capitalists who are being paid to be the educators and the consultants of the Black lived experience [and] taking away opportunities from Black educators and consultants, I am going to rephrase the question to [this]: many companies don’t have the questions or answers to support their Black employees [who] after seeing these images are being re-traumatized…those racist images are the ones erased from textbooks…too many companies think that Black employees can turn off the Black trauma they experience in the world when they get to work, but it doesn’t work like that.
Here are a few crucial questions companies should be asking themselves after seeing white supremacy and whips: What needs to immediately happen in our company for Black employees to feel psychologically safe and engaged like their Black lives matter? How is our company supporting the mental health of our Black employees? Do our Black employees have a safe space and expert(s) to talk with about racism and race-based PTSD inside or outside of the organization? Does our public stance against racism include challenging and changing minds of all our stakeholders in this unprecedented environment of anti-black racism? Anti-black racism is a mindset. In addition to the immediate anti-racist needs of our Black employees, what long term anti-racist thinking and planning would benefit our BIPOC employees? How can we take immediate action to create anti-racist change? What can we be doing to help free the workplace and world place from the violence of racism? What role can our company play in ending this endless cycle of anti-black racism?
The border patrol images didn’t show any trails of blood, but it leaves a trail of trauma on Black employees who are already traumatized from everyday anti-black racism. There are so many ways Black employees experience trauma through racism…we must increasingly call on organizations to support anti-racism education and be hypervigilant about any racist practices in the workplace and world place. Workplace racism and world place racism are inseparable. When companies ignore race, that means they are ignoring racism and the racial injustices in society that racial hierarchies have created and continue to uphold. We need an anti-racist world, not a world anti-talking about race and racism. When history isn’t learned, it is repeated. The most powerful weapon against racism is education. Companies can reach out to me and other Black anti-racism educators and consultants for answers. The only experts and educators on Black lives should be Black lives.
Asare: Often the anti-black racism we discuss does not center the anti-black racism that immigrants experience. Can you speak more about how anti-blackness impacts Black immigrant populations within the U.S.?
Branch: I don’t think there is much difference in being treated with anti-black racism once on American soil…as African Americans stand in solidarity against anti-black racist practices against migrant Black communities on American soil, it is equally important that we continue to call out and remedy the anti-blackness within [Black] immigrant communities toward African Americans. It’s very important that Black immigrants that are allowed in the U.S. unite with their Black American sisters and brothers who fight for them. They must respect African Americans and the great sacrifice of blood, sweat, and tears [that] African Americans made through fighting for civil rights and continue to make through the Black Lives Matter movement, that laid the foundation for Black immigrants to be able to come to the United States. If their fight is our fight, our fight must become their fight. We must all be in this fight together. We need each other to survive.
Asare: How do you stay optimistic when seeing the pervasive racism that seems to never cease? As someone who has dedicated their life to this work, what keeps you going and fueled to do this work, which can be very draining and depleting?
Branch: Black women keep me optimistic. The unknown and known Black women from across the globe. Black women know we can’t win the fight to protect the wellbeing and save the lives of all in the Black community if we’re not in the fight to protect the wellbeing and save the lives of all in the Black community. I think about Harriet Tubman fighting to free us from whips and white supremacy, to Stacey Abrams fighting to keep our generation from going backwards to be whipped by white supremacy. History has shown, if not Black women, then who?
I call on the strength of the ancestors. Fighting and educating against anti-black racism is like breathing to me. I’m not tired of breathing. I’m tired of seeing people in my community take their last breath because of anti-black racism. I’m going to continue fighting and educating on the front lines of minds to save Black lives and livelihoods. That is how my community will breathe racism-free air. It’s part of how we will survive. We can’t breathe without fighting. Educating against racism is somewhat sacrificial. ‘I’m sacrificing my mental health to end racism one mind at a time.’ It only takes one racist mind to end a Black life or livelihood. Anti-racism education is the beginning of ending racism in the mind. We can’t protest racism in the mind away. When I get mentally and physically exhausted, I take the gloves off and go off the grid for a while and practice self-care.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
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