Like prizefighters, resilience is a quality that allows us to bounce back after be knocked down. However, remaining positive and optimistic, key qualities for being resilient, proves incredibly difficult when those adversarial punches are constant. That’s why it’s truly remarkable that people of color in the United States are able to show resilience day after day when facing racism and antagonistic societal messages in this country.
Whether it’s repeatedly catching demeaning messages in the media, within their interpersonal circles or via social media posts, their exposure to this negativity forces them to immediately process it in their heads, repress the anger so as to remain civil, and then hope it won’t affect their wellbeing in the long run.
During the act of simply entering a store, people of color are scrutinized much more than whites are. After years of being looked at suspiciously and followed by security guards, many become trained not to walk through a store with bags that are not sealed or zippered shut so as to cause suspicion. Such was the case for Brian Jones, a light- skinned black man from New York. In his essay for The Guardian, “Growing Up Black in America,” Jones, an educator and activist, wrote: “My survival strategy was to make myself as non-threatening as possible. I became so well-practiced in the art of not offending racist white people that I ceased to become outraged by them, at least when they affected me directly. I knew how to enter a store, to make eye contact with someone who worked there, to smile and say hello as if to say: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not trying to steal anything.’”
However, this constant negativity, and its repression, can be like a ticking time bomb. The ever-present reminder of the racial barriers and biases that threaten the lives of people of color take a psychological toll on its victims both directly and indirectly, reports Psychology Today. “A wealth of empirical evidence demonstrates that experiencing discrimination, especially when chronic, is associated with a myriad of negative physical and mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, traumatic reactions, and even psychosis.”
Going High, Not Low
Activist and writer Audre Lorde once said “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, but self-preservation, and that is political warfare.” To combat these racist messages one must implement a range of daily coping strategies to manage this distress. Or else re-entering white America day after day in an attempt to meet one´s daily demands at school and work, for example, would become impossible and intolerable.
What’s worse, the daily emotional weight of racist attacks are dealt with through outright denial, such as through substance use, aggression, or self-blame, it can be life threatening. An example of such an extreme case was the suicide of Black Lives Matter activist Marshawn McCarrel, points out Monnica T. Williams, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Psychological Sciences in an article for Psychology Today.
Tactics for How to Cope Proactively
So how does one get through a racist moment with a colleague at work for example? According to the University of Connecticut’s Dr. Williams, there are several coping strategies that people of color can use to empower themselves. She points to how African Americans use proactive coping, a way to maintain self-control in anticipation of racial discrimination. This anticipatory tactic makes it easier to manage the situational dynamics of an interracial interaction where one’s peer may behave in a biased manner.
Strategies include “suspending judgments about where one’s peer will be racially aggressive/insensitive until further information is obtained (reserved judgment); reconfiguring one’s perception of their peer to be more positive in nature (cognitive reappraisal); effortful control tactics to avoid impulsive reactions, disclosing personal information to encourage one’s peer to view them as individual rather than as a negative stereotype (individuating information); and pursuing information about the nature of a peer’s racial biases to guide coping efforts throughout the interaction (information seeking).”
The use of these strategies enables a person of color to mentally talk themselves through a racially hostile encounter and see the situation from multiple perspectives. Thus, giving the possibly racist person in question plenty of leeway for human error. One wishes the person making the racist remark would have thought as much before having spoken the insult in the first place.
Dr. Jessica Graham-LoPresti, an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the clinical psychology doctoral program at Suffolk University, recommends practicing self-compassion with oneself during moments like these. Her webinar, The Effects of Racism on Mental Health: How to Cope, available on the AADA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) website, points out that people of color beat themselves for responding emotionally in situations like these. “It’s A natural response to a painful situation,” she says. “We treat ourselves more poorly than we treat others. We are not and cannot be perfect and we have these reasonable reactions to racism.”
A self-compassionate tactic is talking to yourself as you would to your closest friend or partner who was having a painful response to racism. Avoid being judgmental or hard on yourself, and use the same kindness you would with a friend on yourself as your go through this moment.
Attending to Our Emotional Experiences and Responses.
If you are experiencing racism at school or at work, it may get in the way of you accomplishing things that are meaningful in your growth and your economic survival. We need to think about how to avoid letting the irresponsible and inconsiderate behaviors of others interfere in this. Although we can’t control the environments we enter, there are things we can control within ourselves.
When we feel shame or become angry after a racist attack, our natural response is to push these emotions away. One wants to suppress them somehow, because you need to get through the day. But the more we push them down, the more they grow and become overwhelming and convert into anxiety. People of color need to acknowledge these feelings and view them as part of their resilience. An acceptance of our emotional response is key to finding inner tranquility.
Find a Community of People Who See You for Who You Are
People of color need to build each other up. In order to withstand the racism we deal with on a day to day basis, mental health becomes a community based endeavor. Dr. Jessica Graham-LoPresti recommends surrounding ourselves with people who value our worth. These are the people who see you for who you are. The people who you know you for your unique value. Finding people who we can talk to about how these things affect us is key for healing these wounds. If you can’t find anyone to talk with immediately when you’re feeling upset, journal about it suggests Dr. Graham-LoPresti. Just get it out of your system.
Remember to Externalize Racism, Never Blame Yourself
By now, we all know that the idea that we live in a meritocracy in the United States is a myth. Some people are born with qualities that put them ahead of others. So it’s important to not put yourself down or see your self-worth as less due to racism in the world. Navigate the world knowing your self-worth and goodness and view racism as an external barrier, not an internal one. If your goal is to get an education, change advisors if you don’t like their racist jokes. Psychologists recommend making a list about what you are most proud of. For example, raising your kid, taking a class, being fit, graduating from college, to remind yourself that you are worthy, especially when your worth is being challenged constantly.
Audre Lorde’s Revolutionary Reminder of Self-Care
If we are not taking care of ourselves, we can’t live a full life. Sleep, nutrition, exercise, journaling, meditating, going to counseling, and spending time with people who nourish our souls, are all ways to rise above the negative noise in our daily lives. Many view therapy or counseling as something for people who are not mentally stable or that are spiritually weak. But this is far from the truth.
We all deserve a space that is just for us to talk about what we are thinking, feeling and experiencing. Whether it’s a spiritual advisor, a community leader, or your primary care physician, counseling doesn’t mean you’re defective in any way. It means you are seeking a place where you can be given coping skills to dodge and combat societal attacks and rise above for your benefit and for those around you.
*The ADDA website (www.adaa.org ) provides a tool for finding a therapist in your area.