While many Americans are coping with the stress and trauma of managing health, lifestyle changes, and financial concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic, many people of color are also managing, the largely unaddressed, emotional stress triggered by primary and secondary threats to physical and emotional security and belongingness due to race.
The video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, being murdered in the streets of Georgia while jogging; images of armed men with swastikas, nooses, and confederate flags protesting the stay at home order at the Michigan state capitol; endless stories of Asian Americans being followed and verbally attacked; images of quarantined orders being disparately enforced in neighborhoods of color- all contribute to experiences of increased stress.
It is important that this distinctive emotional experience is validated. Racism has emotional consequences for many people of color that include anger, fear, shame, and hopelessness/powerlessness . The following will aid people of color in understanding and validating this constellation of emotional experience and provide several coping strategies to manage these feelings.
Anger. Anger is an adaptive emotion triggered when one’s personal boundary is violated. It is appropriate and reasonable to feel angry when one experiences or witnesses racist and discriminatory treatment, harassment, and/or violence.
Fear. Fear is the normal emotional response to threats to safety. For many people of color witnessing images of violence towards other people of color or having primary experiences of bias results in fear. This fear can be regarding bodily harm or death, the loss of resources, harm to loved ones, etc. For example, many people of color may be fearful about wearing face coverings in public due to concerns about being misperceived as a threat and the potential for racist victimization.
Shame. Many individuals experiencing primary and secondary racism may also experience shame. The messaging in these experiences is that the person of color is to blame for the threats, discrimination, and/or violent behaviors, resulting in implicit feelings of shame. Blaming the victim has long been thought of as counter intuitive and counter productive in the healing of trauma and trauma related diagnoses; however, this often still occurs within the context of racial threats, assaults, and posturing. Shame may make it difficult for victims to share racist experiences or discuss complex feelings resulting from witnessing racism.
Hopelessness/Powerlessness. Many victims report feeling small in the face of racism and bigotry. Primary and secondary racist threats and violence may result in the victim feeling they do not have enough power to make any significant changes to their experience so a future without these experiences seem unlikely. For example, when once witnesses a racist violent act and the judicial system does not intervene to punish the perpetrators, many people of color may feel like they can do little to protect themselves or their loved ones from racist violence.
When one is considering how to address the emotions triggered by primary and secondary experiences of racism, bias, and bigotry, during the Covid-19 pandemic, please remember you are not alone. These incidents can cause one to feel isolated from the collective pandemic trauma, but many people of color are having similar incidents. Consider the following coping strategies.
Community. Find a sense of community around shared experiences. It is important that your traumas are validated in a safe space. While this may included trusted friends and loved ones, it may also be social media groups where one can find support, shared emotional perspective, and feelings of belongingness.
Validate. Validate how you are feeling. As a person of color experiencing racism during the Covid-19 pandemic, you have unique emotional traumas. I is ok to not feel ok. It may be difficult to put words to your emotions and that is ok too. Be aware that your emotional experience may manifest in your body with fatigue, stomach aches, headaches. You may notice trouble sleeping, racing thoughts, changes in mood. These are all signals that you are distressed. Consider taking a moment to stop and validate how you are feeling. The process of journaling is a method of self-reflecting and self-validating.
Self-Care. You are valuable, and how you feel is important. Racism of any kind, for any reason is not your fault and you did not cause it- nor did anyone from your racial, ethnic group. Engage in self-care to reinforce your value. Treat yourself with compassion, rest, take time alone, or surround yourself with love, engage in an uplifting activity, do your GRAPES. Resist the urge to berate yourself for things you should have done or need to do, first be kind and compassionate to yourself.
If you notice that you are experiencing reoccurring dreams and/or day time flashbacks of racist violence or experiences, you are disconnected or numb to your feelings, you are experiencing difficulty engaging in your daily responsibilities, relationships, and finding pleasure in activities you once enjoyed- seek support from a licensed mental health professional. You may be experiencing a trauma related disorder that can be effectively treated. You do not have to suffer.
People of color experiencing primary and secondary racism, racist posturing, racist threats, and racist violence – you are not invisible. Being a victim of racism and witnessing it has real consequences to your mental health. It is my hope that this blog post provides a primer to understanding your emotional experience and some methods of coping during this already challenging time.
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Beck, A., Emery, G, Greenberg, R. (1985). Anxiety Disorders and Phobias. Basic Books.