Strategies to cope with racism and racism-related stress as a person of color:
- Practice being aware and kind in the moment to reduce blaming yourself.
- Actions that preserve or restore your resources are an important part of health and resistance.
- Clarifying what is important to you can help you take meaningful actions, resist racism, and affirm and empower yourself and your community.
- Choose your actions to do what's important to you.
- You can take actions within yourself, with others, and in society to counter the effects of racist experiences.
In Understanding Racism and Stress Post-Election: Part1 we highlighted the following:
- Racism can be overt threats, actions, or words, or can involve more subtle or unintentional insults, invalidation, or microaggressions.
- Racism happens at interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels.
- Racism can have a negative impact on the people it targets, even if the person committing racist acts did not intend to be hurtful.
- Racism is not the fault or responsibility of the person targeted.
- Racism can have seriously negative effects on health, relationships, and daily living. Discounting or denying these effects can make it difficult to effectively address them.
- Being aware of racist experiences and our natural reactions to them can help us understand and have compassion for our own human responses to racism, and locate the problem in the environment.
In this second part, we focus on strategies that can help people of color deal with racism-related stress in the short-term and over time.
Because this type of stress comes from external circumstances, the most effective way to address it is to get rid of racism through anti-racist action. This is work that all of us, regardless of our race, can do. But we aren't going to stop racism quickly, so it is also helpful to think of how people who experience racism can minimize its negative effects and maximize their own resilience.
Every individual has unique experiences and history, and different coping strategies work for different people. Here we provide some suggestions, based on research as well as our own experiences personally, and from working with people of color.
For other suggestions specifically for Black Americans, see the following articles:
Increasing Understanding and Awareness
Understanding the nature of racist experiences and the natural stress they cause can help reduce negative effects. This understanding helps us(see note) recognize that the problem is in the racist person, system, or society, instead of blaming ourselves.
Note: As we did in the previous post, we use "us," "our" and "we" throughout to highlight shared experiences of coping with stress and anxiety and taking meaningful actions, as well as shared experiences of people of color responding to racism – when we are describing coping with racism, this "we" refers to the readers and the authors of color, because the white authors do not experience racism. Similarly, we use "you" to refer to people of color when we are talking about experiencing racism.
Awareness and understanding helps facilitate self-validation and self-compassion in the moment of racist experiences, immediately afterward, and in the aftermath when we often experience self-doubt and self-blame. Because so many societal messages minimize, ignore, and deny racism, it can be helpful to find ways to affirm the reality and pain of these difficult experiences. Some additional examples of validation are talking with others who understand, or reading or watching things that confirm the painful realities of racism and that demonstrate our resilience and strengths. It is also helpful to simply remind ourselves that experiences of racism are valid, difficult experiences.
Practicing Awareness… Again and Again
Within this context of validating the difficulty and reality of racism, it can be helpful to practice more actively noticing what is happening and how you are feeling in the moment as it is, with self-compassion, and without trying to make yourself feel differently1.
This is sometimes referred to as practicing mindfulness3, or paying attention on purpose with kindness. Some people think that this means focusing solely on positive experiences, like noticing calming and soothing sounds and smells. Some people may find that there are times when focusing on pleasant things is indeed strengthening, but that is not the main goal of paying attention in mindfulness. So, we are not suggesting that one should meet the distress of racism by focusing on the birds' songs. Instead, we are suggesting a different approach–one in which intentional awareness of the moment can be a way of strengthening and empowering us, even during a current challenging situation.
Dealing with racism in the moment isn't pleasant, and pretending it is OK is another way of denying our experience, which can feel frustrating and erasing. Instead of trying to feel differently, we can notice the moment as it is to give us a chance to breathe and pause. This might give us a little release from the endless effort of fighting off painful experiences.
We encourage you to see for yourself if mindfulness is helpful for you.
- We can practice this kind of awareness in the moment any time: when we walk, talk, do dishes, fold laundry, take public transportation, or interact with others. Notice the moment as it is, bringing your attention back to whatever you are doing again and again and again4. With practice, you can become more aware in the moment, and more easily notice when you are having a reaction to racism.
- One simple way to practice awareness is to notice your breath: breathe in and out slowly, while noticing what breathing feels like in your body. Your mind will wander, but you can bring attention to your breath again and again. This can help you pay attention all during your life because your breath is always with you. Although it's helpful, but not necessary, some people set aside time to develop this skill by doing yoga or tai chi, dancing or meditating.(see note)
- The eventual goal is not just to notice your breath or do yoga or meditate. The goal is to be able to practice kind awareness in the moment, even as difficult events are unfolding. This awareness, coupled with understanding the nature and impact of racism and being kind to ourselves, can help us intentionally practice self-compassion and self-care during and after racist experiences, rather than automatically blaming or criticizing ourselves.
- Being able to bring awareness and self-compassion to challenging, threatening, or painful moments can be difficult, and it can take time to develop. We are not used to paying attention in the moment. This inattention may mean that we are less accepting and kind to ourselves, and that we habitually fall into blaming ourselves, minimizing, freezing, or aggression when faced with racism.
Note: Some recordings of formal mindfulness practices are available at mindfulwaythroughanxiety.com/exercises in case you find them helpful.
Awareness and mindfulness can give us a chance to pause in the face of racist experiences, or immediately after them, so that we can choose our responses instead of reacting automatically as we tend to easily do in stressful situations. When we can notice in the moment the natural reactions we are having to a racist incident, we have an opportunity to choose whether we want to follow our automatic impulses or choose another response based on what is important to us. This gives us some control and agency in the face of these injustices.
Choose Your Actions and Activities
Once we notice what's happening and recognize it's coming from outside, we can choose our actions, rather than automatically responding to racist experiences. This gives us an opportunity to do what matters to us and choose actions that reflect what we value. Active choices rooted in your values are empowering and can be part of resisting racist influences.4 Your choices may preserve, build, or replenish your resources.
Here are some examples of actions you might choose, depending on what matters to you and what you value:
- Protecting yourself by withdrawing or avoiding painful or threatening experiences and preserving your resources. Some examples could be walking away from a confrontation where your rights may not be protected, or deciding not to go to a store or restaurant where you have been mistreated. You also may choose to limit or avoid completely certain aspects of social media or news to reduce exposure to hateful rhetoric. Taking this space can decrease your reactivity and preserve your resources for other things that matter to you.
- Being with people who understand and validate your experiences and joining together to work for justice. This can also preserve or replenish your resources. We can bring our kind awareness to these interactions so that we are more connected in them.
- Engaging in activities that promote your own physical or emotional well-being intentionally and with awareness to build and replenish your resources. Such activities could include healthful eating, exercising, listening to enjoyable music, viewing shows or reading books that relate to your experience, spending time with people in your family or community, being in nature, or engaging with culturally meaningful rituals or practices. Replenishing and building our resources can increase our ability to take actions for ourselves and for others.
Be the Person You Want to Be
Your choices may also involve being the person you want to be or actively creating the world you want to build. It can be helpful to take time to reflect on what is important to us and what we care about—not what society says we should value. This enables us to take actions consistent with how we want to be in the world.
Here are some examples of these types of choices:
- Make choices to act in ways that connect to the kind of person you want to be in your relationships, at work or school, in your community, in society. Intentionally choosing to act in ways that are meaningful to you, at any moment, can be strengthening and can counter the diminishing effects of racism. Here are some examples of valued actions – your choices will be based on what is most meaningful for you, and may go beyond what is included in this list:
- Being kind or caring to family and community members.
- Being genuine and honest.
- Being open to learning new things.
- Challenging yourself to grow.
- Honoring your traditions.
- Connecting to spiritual or religious practices.
- Being creative or expressive.
Reflect Your Values
It can be hard or even painful at times to make choices to act in ways that reflect our values. Awareness and mindfulness can help us pause to make difficult decisions. By acting with intention, you can be clear that you are making choices based on what matters to you—not because you are internalizing or ignoring racism. Depending on what is of value in a particular moment, examples might include:
- Continuing to pursue goals even in racist contexts because these goals matter to you, while also working not to internalize the messages received.
- Deciding not to confront a teacher, boss or supervisor about racist remarks while validating the difficult emotions they cause in you, because maintaining good relations is more important in that moment.
- Engaging at school, work, or in your community and bringing attention to racism in those settings and voicing your opinions—even if it means exposing yourself to difficult interactions or situations.
- Expressing your anger or pain, even if it makes others uncomfortable or comes with social costs.
Anti-racist work or social justice activism can be meaningful and affirming actions to choose in the face of racism. These can take place at intrapersonal, relational, or social levels and can be both small and large actions.
Here are some examples, but you could also come up with your own, depending on what is personally meaningful to you:
- Resisting internalizing racist stereotypes, images, or beliefs
- Identifying specific experiences as racist and related to you personally
- Caring for yourself and your community, countering acts of degradation and erasure
- Intentionally forming connections with people who validate your or others' experiences
- Sharing information and inspirations with others
- Speaking out against or refusing to participate in racist activities or jokes
- Forming coalitions, inspiring others to action, working to build community support and solidarity
- Voting on local and national issues
- Advocating for relational, social, or policy changes through speaking out, educating, organizing, marching, or protesting.
In sum, coping with racism is challenging because racism is a real and damaging threat. Understanding racism and avoiding self-blame are first steps. Mindful awareness and choosing actions that reflect our values can also help us avoid feeling stuck and helpless, and contribute to our resilience.
Date of original publication: January 25, 2017.
Recommended For You
1 - Brown-Iannizzi, J., Adair, KC, Payne, BK, Richman, LS, & Frederickson, BL (2014). Discrimination hurts, but mindfulness may help: Trait mindfulness moderates the relationship between perceived discrimination and depressive symptoms. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 201-205; Graham, J. R., *West, L., & Roemer, L. (2013). The experience of racism and anxiety symptoms in an African American Sample: Moderating effects of trait mindfulness. Mindfulness, 4, 332-341.
2 - Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delta.
3 - Nhat Hanh, T. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Bantam Books
4 - Graham, J. R., West, L. M., & Roemer, L. (2015). A preliminary exploration of the moderating role of valued living in the relationships between racist experiences and anxious and depressive symptoms. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4, 48-55; West, L., Graham, J. R. & Roemer, L. (2013). Functioning in the face of racism: Preliminary findings on the buffering role of values clarification in a Black American sample. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 2, 1-8