Strategies for coping with racism and racism-related stress as a person of colour:
- Cultivate mindfulness and self-compassion to reduce self-blame.
- Engage in actions that protect or replenish your personal resources and promote well-being and resilience.
- Define your values and priorities, enabling you to take purposeful action that challenges racism, promotes self-empowerment and uplifts your community.
- Choose actions that align with your personal beliefs and aspirations.
- Adopt a multi-faceted approach to addressing the impact of racist encounters, encompassing personal growth, interpersonal relationships and societal change.
Part 1 of our series ‘Understanding racism and post-election stress‘ highlighted several key points:
- Racism includes overt threats, actions or words, as well as subtle insults, invalidations or microaggressions.
- Racism operates at interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels.
The negative impact of racism on its targets persists regardless of the perpetrator’s intent to cause harm.
- The responsibility for racism lies with the perpetrators, not the targets.
- Racism has profound negative effects on health, relationships and daily life, and ignoring or denying these effects hinders effective intervention.
- Developing awareness of racist experiences and recognising our natural reactions can promote understanding and compassion, and focus attention on the environment as the source of the problem.
- In this second part, our focus shifts to strategies to help people of colour cope with racism-related stress in both the short and long term.
Since such stress is caused by external circumstances, the most effective approach is to combat racism through anti-racist action. This collective effort transcends racial boundaries and requires ongoing commitment. However, given the persistence of racism, it is also valuable to explore ways in which individuals exposed to racism can mitigate its harmful effects and build personal resilience.
Each person’s experience and history is unique, which means that coping strategies will vary. Drawing on research and our extensive work with people of colour, we offer the following suggestions as possible avenues for consideration.
For more suggestions specific to black Americans, see the following articles:
Increasing understanding and awareness
Gaining insight into the nature of racist encounters and the inherent stress they cause serves to mitigate adverse effects. This understanding enables us (see note) to shift our focus away from self-blame and instead attribute the problem to the individuals, systems or societies that perpetuate racism.
Note: As in our previous post, the inclusive pronouns "us," "our," and "we" are employed to underscore shared experiences of managing stress, anxiety, and taking meaningful action, as well as shared experiences of people of color in response to racism. When discussing coping with racism, "we" refers to both the readers and the authors of colour, as the white authors do not personally experience racism. Similarly, the term "you" is used to address people of color regarding their experiences of racism..
Increased awareness and understanding promotes self-validation and self-compassion during and after racist incidents, counteracting self-doubt and self-blame. Given the prevalence of societal messages that downplay, dismiss or negate racism, it is beneficial to seek affirmation of the reality and distress associated with such encounters. Engaging in validating conversations with understanding peers or consuming literature and media that acknowledges the painful realities of racism while highlighting resilience and strengths are additional avenues for validation. In addition, reminding ourselves that experiences of racism are valid and painful can
Practicing Awareness… Again and Again
In the context of acknowledging the painful reality of racism, it can be beneficial to actively practice the act of noticing and accepting the present moment experience with self-compassion, rather than trying to change one’s feelings.
This practice, often referred to as mindfulness, involves directing attention with intention and kindness. It is important to note that mindfulness does not focus solely on positive aspects, such as soothing sounds or smells. While some people may find comfort in attending to pleasant stimuli, the primary aim of mindfulness is not to divert attention from the distress of racism. Instead, it offers an alternative approach – an intentional awareness of the moment as a means of strengthening and empowerment, even in the midst of challenging circumstances.
Confronting racism in real time is far from comfortable, and feigning acceptance only serves to deny our experiences, leading to frustration and erasure. Rather than trying to change our feelings, we can observe the moment as it unfolds, allowing ourselves to pause and breathe. This allows for a temporary respite from the constant struggle with painful encounters.
We encourage you to explore the potential benefits of mindfulness for yourself.
- Present awareness can be practised in a variety of everyday activities, such as walking, talking, doing housework, commuting or interacting with others. By continually bringing your attention to the present moment and what you are doing, you build your capacity to recognise reactions to racism. Over time, this practice increases present-moment awareness and facilitates the identification of personal responses to racist experiences.
- A simple approach to cultivating awareness is to focus on the breath – slowly inhaling and exhaling while attuning to bodily sensations. Although the mind may wander, gently bring it back to the breath. This practice cultivates mindfulness in all aspects of life, as the breath remains a constant companion. While practices such as yoga, tai chi, dance or meditation can be supportive, they are not essential for developing this skill.
- The ultimate goal is not to focus solely on breath observation, yoga or meditation. Rather, it is about consciously embracing kind awareness during challenging moments, even as they unfold. This form of awareness, coupled with an understanding of the nature and impact of racism and self-compassion, enables the conscious cultivation of self-care and self-compassion during and after encounters with racism, rather than resorting to self-blame or criticism.
- Acquiring the ability to bring awareness and self-compassion to difficult, threatening or painful moments can be challenging and takes time to develop. Our tendency to be inattentive can lead to self-judgment and a lack of self-acceptance, often resulting in self-blame, minimisation, withdrawal or aggression when confronted with racism.
Note: Mindfulwaythroughanxiety.com/exercises offers recordings of formal mindfulness practices if you find them useful.
By cultivating awareness and mindfulness, we create a space to pause in the midst of, or immediately after, racist experiences. This pause empowers us to consciously choose our responses, rather than succumbing to the automatic responses typical of stressful situations. By noticing our natural reactions at the moment of a racist incident, we gain the opportunity to decide whether to follow our instinctive impulses or choose an alternative response based on our core values. This gives us a sense of control and agency in the face of such injustices.
Choosing our actions and activities
Once we acknowledge that the source of these experiences is external, we can consciously choose our actions rather than reflexively respond to racism. This gives us the opportunity to align our choices with our values and to prioritise actions that reflect what is truly important to us. Proactive choices based on personal values are not only empowering, but also serve as a form of resistance to racist influences. These choices can protect, nurture or restore our personal resources.
Here are illustrative examples of actions you might consider, depending on your personal values and priorities:
- Self-protection: Protect yourself by disengaging from painful or threatening situations and preserving your resources. This may involve walking away from confrontations where your rights may be compromised, or making a conscious decision not to patronise establishments that have mistreated you. Limiting or avoiding certain aspects of social media or news that perpetuate hateful rhetoric can also reduce exposure and preserve your well-being. Creating this space can reduce reactivity and conserve resources for endeavours that are important to you.
- Seek support: Surround yourself with people who understand and validate your experiences and work together for justice. This supportive network helps to maintain or replenish your resources. Bringing a kind awareness to these interactions can foster a deeper sense of connection.
- Engage in self-care: Engaging in activities that intentionally promote your physical and emotional well-being, while remaining attuned to your values, builds and replenishes resources. Such activities may include eating a nutritious diet, participating in exercise routines, enjoying music or media that resonates with your experiences, spending time with loved ones or your community, immersing yourself in nature, or engaging in culturally meaningful rituals or practices. By replenishing and nurturing your resources, you increase your capacity to act on behalf of yourself and others.
Embodying personal values
Our choices can include embodying the person we want to be and actively contributing to the creation of the world we envision. Taking the time to reflect on what really matters to us, independent of societal expectations, enables us to take actions that are aligned with our desired way of being in the world.
Consider the following examples of such choices:
- Aligning actions with personal values: Making conscious choices that reflect the kind of person we want to be in our relationships, workplaces, communities and society. Purposefully engaging in meaningful actions at any given moment serves to reinforce and counteract the diminishing effects of racism. Examples of valued actions include
- Extending kindness and care to family and community members.
- Embracing authenticity and honesty.
- Cultivating an openness to continuous learning.
- Challenging oneself to promote personal growth.
- Honouring cultural traditions.
- Cultivate spiritual or religious connections.
- Express creativity and authenticity.
Reflecting values in actions
Choosing to act in ways that reflect our values can be challenging and sometimes even painful. Mindfulness and awareness provide the necessary pause to make difficult choices. By acting with intention, we affirm that our choices come from what we really care about, rather than from internalising or ignoring racism. Depending on the context, examples might include
- Pursuing personal goals despite encountering racism, while actively working to resist internalising harmful messages.
- Choosing not to confront a teacher, supervisor or boss about racist remarks in the interest of maintaining positive relationships, while acknowledging the challenging emotions they evoke.
- Engaging in educational, professional or community settings, drawing attention to racism in these contexts and expressing personal opinions, even if this means navigating difficult interactions or situations.
- Expressing anger or pain, regardless of the potential discomfort or social consequences for others.
Anti-racist work and social justice activism are meaningful and affirming actions that can be taken in response to racism. These actions can take place on an individual, relational or societal level and can involve small or large scale efforts. Consider the following examples or explore other ways that resonate with your personal values:
- Resisting the internalisation of racist stereotypes, images or beliefs.
- Identifying specific experiences as personal encounters with racism.
- Caring for oneself and the community, countering acts of degradation and erasure.
- Build intentional connections with people who validate personal experiences or those of others.
- To share information and inspiration with others.
- Speaking out against or refusing to participate in racist activities or jokes.
- Working with others to inspire collective action and foster community support and solidarity.
- Voting in local and national elections.
- Working for relational, social or political change through speaking out, educating, organising, marching or protesting.
In summary, dealing with racism is challenging because of its real and damaging effects. Understanding racism and avoiding self-blame are crucial first steps. By cultivating mindful awareness and consciously choosing actions that are consistent with our values, we can overcome feelings of helplessness and contribute to our own resilience.
- 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.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delta.
- Nhat Hanh, T. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Bantam Books
- 4Graham, 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