'It's about racism': Trauma experts weigh in on McAlister's conflict that cost teen her job
When 15-year-old Aniya Thompson clocked in for work last November at McAlister’s Deli in northwest Knoxville, she never imagined that it would be the last day of the first job she ever had.
She had no idea that a social media firestorm ignited by the Knox County Sheriff's Office would add another layer of trauma and mental anguish to what she has suffered since her brother, Anthony Thompson Jr., lost his life at the hands of the police in a high school bathroom.
And she certainly couldn't have imagined that she'd be speaking out in public settings about the incident, her brother's legacy and the pressure put on her and other young Black people by institutions that are supposed to protect people.
On March 20, the Knox County Commission will discuss what was put in motion by sheriff's office personnel. The conversation was initiated by Commissioner Dasha Lundy, who called for a resolution to subpoena the sheriff's office to get answers about what happened that day at the McAlister's on Schaad Road.
Deputies said the teenager refused to serve them because they are law enforcement. Aniya Thompson and a co-worker refuted their accusations. The sheriff's office and its spokesperson, Kimberly Glenn, posted on social media complaining about the girl, who was fired from her job soon after.
'As Black people, we don’t get the same empathy and understanding'
For nearly two years, Aniya has done all she can to cope with the stress after her 17-year-old brother was shot to death by a Knoxville police officer. She has attended therapy and tried to free her mind of the mental images she still carries from watching her brother lose his life on camera.
She didn’t get a chance to prepare for it. When district attorney Charme Allen held a press conference to explain why she wouldn't charge officers in the death of Anthony, she played the video of body camera footage that showed Knoxville officers rushing into the bathroom and eventually shooting and killing him.
To many, it was another young Black man losing his life in a manner that is far too familiar, but to Aniya, he was Ant. He was family; he was the big brother who would tell her to close her eyes during scary movies and bring her juice at 3 in the morning.
When Lundy spoke out in defense of Aniya Thompson after the teenager lost her job, fellow commissioner Rhonda Lee told Lundy and those in the crowd at a county commission meeting that “it's not about race.”
But those versed and trained in mental health and sociology say Aniya's experience is absolutely about racism.
“As Black people, we don’t get the same empathy and understanding. When Black girls are struggling they aren’t met with compassion. It’s 'She’s problematic or oppositional,'" Dr. Amanda Calhoun told Knox News. "It is about race. It's about racism and we don't like to talk about that."
Calhoun, an adult and child psychiatry resident at Yale Child Study Center and Yale School of Medicine, has spent her entire educational and professional life focusing on the mental health of Black American children. Her research focuses on identifying and mitigating the mental health effects of racism, and she has been vocal about the role American law enforcement plays in the lives of African Americans and mental health across the globe.
After learning about the incident with Aniya Thompson, deputies and McAlister’s Deli, she told Knox News that workplaces must accommodate for racial trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This isn’t just about law enforcement, although they are a branch of our society that is very much an issue. It has been more publicized. But it also goes back to the workplace accommodating people to take space when they're suffering from mental illness and I really do think that it is a race issue," Calhoun said.
"We don’t talk about that as much. Because I wonder, had this been a white person, or even in a different situation, they would have probably understood, 'Oh, she's just struggling,' and I see that a lot of the time where you know, if a Black person needs to take space because they're suffering, it's like 'Tough, tough love. Oh well, just do your job.'"
What is race-based trauma?
Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress, refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters that involve racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism and hate crimes, according to Mental Health America. Any individual who has experienced an emotionally painful, sudden and uncontrollable racist encounter is at risk of suffering from a race-based traumatic stress injury. In the U.S., Black, indigenous, and people of color are most vulnerable due to living under a system of white supremacy.
A report by Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Center said police brutality and other police violence directly harms the mental health and well-being of individuals who experience it firsthand, but it also harms entire communities as well.
Evidence shows that the constant stress of the looming threat of police violence, the actual experience of police violence, and the devastating aftermath of police brutality at a personal (first or secondhand) and societal level can have serious effects on the mental health of people.
Police killings damage the mental health of Black Americans, especially youth
Racial stressors are a daily occurrence for many Black children and teenagers in the U.S.: racial slurs in school, implicit bias from educators and authorities and police violence against Black people caught on video.
There are different types of racial stressors, from a single incident to multiple incidents over time. It can also be witnessing injustice on a systemic level. Experts say that all of these experiences can trigger stress and symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
To mental health experts, the sheer reality of losing a family member to violence is enough to trigger symptoms of PTSD, grief and a number of mental health illnesses that tie into being a Black person in America.
Phillip Tucker, a licensed professional counselor in Knoxville and an Austin-East alumnus, told Knox News that PTSD and Complex PTSD are often experienced by those suffering from race-based trauma.
“We see this sense of captivity. They can't escape from it. Whatever is causing these experiences is oftentimes where a person is actually depending on the person who's creating this situation for survival. So it could be a parent, a police officer, it could be teachers or government officials. We depend on these people for different things," Tucker said.
"So you see when the very mechanisms and system that's supposed to be in place to protect you and to help you thrive are actually perpetuating the adverse experiences that are leading to further trauma, that's a problem."
Tucker said that race-based trauma and Complex PTSD are also a reflection of the historical context of the origins of African Americans in the United States.
“It is very simple. If you can trace your lineage back to American descendants of slavery in some form or fashion, and you consider yourself to be Black in this country, I think that you have a pretty good case that the system itself has contributed to not only you potentially experiencing Complex PTSD, but your lineage has as well," he said.'
What are the laws for employee accommodations for mental health?
Aniya Thompson told Knox News that McAlister's Deli was aware when they hired her of who she was, her ongoing therapy and the trauma she was attempting to heal from after the death of her brother.
Calhoun said that having a system in the workplace to accommodate employees' mental health should be the goal and is required by law.
"When the co-worker stepped up to serve the officers, this situation was handled as it should have been, regardless of the reason," Calhoun said.
The U.S. Department of Labor states that it is likely that most employers have at least one employee with a mental health condition.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other nondiscrimination laws, most employers must provide "reasonable accommodations" to qualified employees with disabilities.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that if you have depression, PTSD or another mental health condition:
You are protected against discrimination and harassment at work because of your condition.
You have workplace privacy rights.
You may have a legal right to get reasonable accommodations that can help you perform and keep your job.
Black girls are adultified, not protected
Research has shown that Black girls in America are often viewed as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls. To advocates like Commissioner Lundy and activists in the Knoxville community, Thompson has been treated as the villain in a situation, not the victim.
After Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Kimberly Glenn posted about the incident on her personal Facebook page, the teen was thrust into a social media firestorm, subjecting her to online bullying and eventually being fired from her job.
Both Tucker and Calhoun said that when Aniya Thompson decided to step away from the cash register and asked her co-worker to serve Knox County sheriff's department officers, it was never considered that the teen could be experiencing undue stress or anxiety from the situation or the mere presence of a police officer. The absence of concern for the teenager exemplifies how Black girls are treated in society.
“The fact that someone took over for her to serve these officers should be conceived as respect and congratulated, rather than the response it got from adults because it was handled exactly as it should have been,” Calhoun said.
Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s study finds Black girls routinely experience adultification bias.
An analysis of a national survey of adults' attitudes toward Black girls was conducted by the center for a study called "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood." It found that adults believe that Black girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort than white girls of the same age, and that Black girls are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex than white girls.
“When I counsel my patients I tell them that if you see something or hear something that triggers you or brings up your trauma, take space, step back. What her co-worker did was very important and should be uplifted,” Calhoun said.
In her own practice, Calhoun said she often witnesses a lack of compassion or urgency for Black girls and women who are suffering, especially in the workplace.
“To encounter police, the same institution that your brother was killed by, most definitely can and would cause severe symptoms at work. Nobody has asked what if she had a panic attack, or if she was OK. The argument that this child should not have done what she did tells me that this is about power and control rather than the goal of serving customers or whatever your job is," Calhoun said.
"I was confused that these officers had the opportunity to be served and there was still an outrage," Calhoun added. "When adults do this on the internet, do they understand they are contributing to potential depressive symptoms and anxiety or even suicide attempts? Do they understand how harmful words can be?
"There needs to be more talk about how damaging this can be and life-threatening, especially to a child."
Angela Dennis is the Knox News social justice, race and equity reporter. You can reach her by email at email@example.com Follow her on Twitter @AngeladWrites; Instagram @angeladenniswrites; and Facebook at Angela Dennis Journalist.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Trauma experts on McAlister's firing that cost Knoxville teen her job