Coping with Discrimination

Photo by Jeffery Erhunse on Unsplash

There has been a lot of focus recently on how organizations can improve related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how individuals can work to be anti-racist. These conversations are necessary and it strikes me that there has been very little focus on how to support Black people as we navigate racism and discrimination in our daily lives. Additionally, so often, Black people are the ones tasked with the emotional labor of leading the diversity committee or the equity efforts without additional compensation. My hope is that the increased acknowledgement of the racial trauma in this country and the need for healing is shifting this dynamic . Unfortunately, the road to increased equity and inclusion and to ensuring that spaces are welcoming and affirming for Black people is long, and it is important that we prioritize taking care of ourselves during this time. In this post I will share some common reactions people have to experiencing discrimination as well as coping strategies to take care of yourself in the face of discrimination.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination involves being treated differently based on your identity or membership in a certain group. Discrimination could look like never being considered for a promotion because you are a Black women, not receiving challenging work assignments that could further your career, or not being compensated as much as your White male colleagues for the same work. Discrimination often manifests in the form of microaggressions, which are brief interactions that communicate negative views about people from your identity group. A classic example of a microaggression is having a colleague express surprise at how articulate you were when giving a presentation. The underlying message is that because you are a Black woman they assumed you weren’t smart enough too give a good presentation. These microaggressions and discrimination take a toll. Microaggressions and discrimination often leave us questioning ourselves and wondering if we did something wrong to cause someone to treat us poorly or with disrespect. Overall, experiencing discrimination is stressful and exhausting and in response to this stress we can cope in both helpful and unhelpful ways. Below, I highlight common responses to discrimination and my recommendations for healthy coping strategies.

Common Responses to Discrimination

Internalization – Internalizing racism and discrimination involves believing negative stereotypes about your group and feeling that being Black or a member of another historically oppressed group makes you inferior. When people internalize racism and discrimination they often try to distance themselves from other members of their group (e.g., a Black person who doesn’t want to be associated with other Black people). In attempt to manage the discrimination they experience these people have adopted the belief that there is something wrong with being Black because they bought into the dominant narrative about Black people in the US. This internalization is heartbreaking because it causes people to feel unworthy because of who they are.

Representative – Another way that discrimination impacts us is that it can make us feel like we must be the representative for everyone in our group. When you are the representative, you feel the pressure to perform perfectly in order to make sure that other members of you group who come after you will have a chance and be looked upon positively. Taking on the representative role is a lot of pressure and can be emotionally exhausting. Often, when people feel like they must be the representative they don’t feel like they can truly be themselves at work or at school and that they have to hide anything about themselves that could be seen in a negative light.

Overcompensating – Most Black people have been told by a family member that they must work 2-3 times as hard as their White peers to experience any success. The idea is that you have to overcompensate in order to be given the recognition that you deserve. When people overcompensate they adopt perfectionism in an attempt to disprove stereotypes. This often leads to people overworking and experiencing burnout, which is obviously a detriment to their health. Additionally, overcompensating rarely changes people’s negative views about your identity group, it only gets you labeled as an exception.

All three of these responses to discrimination can result in emotional exhaustion and negative feelings about yourself and your work. Take a moment to reflect on whether you have responded to discrimination in any of these ways. How have these things affected the way you think and feel about yourself and how you engage in work and school? Be kind with yourself with in this reflection and remember that whatever your response has been to any discrimination you have experienced, it has come from a place of trying to protect yourself. Next, I will share five healthy coping strategies to support you in navigating discrimination.

Coping Strategies for Discrimination

Acknowledge your experience – So often as Black people we tell ourselves to push through, we ignore our feelings for the sake of being strong, and we may fear that if we stopped to really acknowledge how we feel we would be too angry or upset to keep going. However, while ignoring and suppressing your feelings may be a little helpful in the short-term, it ultimately leads to bigger problems in the long term. Unprocessed anger, pain, and sadness can manifest as physical health issues and can result in getting upset with a family member or partner at another time. This is why my first recommendation is to acknowledge your experience of discrimination. Just naming and validating your experience can be a powerful step towards releasing and healing what happened to you. Allow yourself to feel the sadness, hurt, and anger related to what you have experienced and offer yourself compassion. Acknowledgment helps you to affirm that you are not crazy and that you have experienced something that is challenging and problematic.

De-personalize discrimination and microaggressions – As I mentioned earlier when discussing internalization of stereotypes, it is easy to start to believe the negative things society and colleagues may say about you and to start questioning yourself and feeling that you are being treated poorly because there is something wrong with you are. A powerful way to challenge this is by reminding yourself that you are not experiencing racism and microaggressions because there is a problem with you being a Black woman, for example, you are experiencing these things because there is racism and sexism present in our society and institutions. When people have a problem with you being Black that is their problem, not something that you are responsible for. Taking this stance does not mean that you never accept feedback or identify areas for personal or professional growth, it means that when you experience someone treating you in a biased way because of your identity, you remind yourself that their treatment is about them and the biased society we live and not about you.

Connect with people who look like you – There is a reason that affinity groups still exist and it is because there is a powerful sense of relief that we feel when we are in a space with people who share our identities and we know that we don’t have to prove our intelligence or value. If you are experiencing discrimination, it is important to find places and spaces where you can connect to other people from your identity group. This could be at your job or school or friends and colleagues outside of the place where you work or go to school. Having a safe space to vent about your experiences and have them validated by other people can relieve stress and help you to feel less alone.

Reflect on the experience and determine whether or not to take action – Once you have acknowledged your experience, depersonalized it and connected with other people for support and validation you can determine whether or not you would like to take action to address the discrimination you experienced. Sometimes it is empowering to address discrimination and microaggressions by talking with the person who was involved or to HR but sometimes that feels like emotional labor that is not worth the energy. Unfortunately, it is common for people to respond defensively when we call them out for inappropriate behavior and it is important not to rely on the response of someone who harmed you in order to make peace with the situation.

Set boundaries and take breaks – If you are experiencing a lot of racism, discrimination, and microaggressions, I encourage you to set boundaries around the time you spend engaging with work and school in order to protect your time and energy outside of work and school. Make sure to take breaks from work to recharge and connect with things and people who are important to you. As I mentioned earlier, overcompensating by engaging in work and school can exacerbate stress and when you are experiencing discrimination it is essential to take care of yourself by taking breaks.

I wish that in 2020 we didn’t still have to talk about how to cope with discrimination and microaggressions but unfortunately racism is still alive and well and in order for BIPOCs to thrive in this environment it is essential to adopt healthy coping strategies and take care of ourselves.

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