Dealing With The Psychological Toll Of Racism Or Discrimination

Keya Wiggins, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Certified Group Psychotherapist - UWF Counseling & Psychological Services

Racism, or any act of discrimination, is harmful in how it degrades you or makes you feel degraded. There are some things in life that happen to us that we didn’t do anything to bring on and that we don’t deserve. Common reactions students have if they experience discrimination include:

  • Feeling fearful, angry, helpless, hopeless, or sad
  • Difficulty concentrating or feeling distracted
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • A change in appetite (loss of appetite or hungry all the time)
  • Emotional numbing or lack of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling isolated or like an outsider in one’s own world
  • Pressure to “prove oneself” to defy negative stereotypes
  • Stress related to being seen as a “representative” of one’s group
  • Unsure or confused about whether you are being treated differently because of race or ethnicity

Here are some tips that we hope you will find helpful. We understand that you are the expert on your own experience and know your needs better than anyone. We hope you will be kind to yourself and let us know how we can help.

Begin by Affirming Yourself and Your Values

  • Fully recognize the wrongdoing and your feelings about it, as you would with someone you care about, by not minimizing or ignoring what happened.
  • Say aloud the wrong that was done, even if only to yourself at first, rather than taking it that you must suffer in silence about being mistreated.
  • Hold those who did wrong accountable for their actions rather than self-blaming that somehow you must be in the wrong or have done something that brought this about, or resigning that you just have to allow for this sort of behavior. 

Practice Taking Care of Yourself

Choose to engage in activities that restore you and make you stronger mentally, physically, and spiritually. 

  • For many, spending time with family and loved ones is the ultimate in being loved for who you are and provides refuge from those who are blind to you as an individual.
  • Take a break and spend time doing things that bring you joy and satisfaction. Choose to watch a favorite movie or show, go play a favorite sport, engage in a favorite hobby, or just spend time with those who make you laugh.
  • Nurture your spiritual belief system. Doing so can provide you with a sense of peace and affirm your personal values. You may even feel less isolated by speaking with or by attending services with others who share your spiritual beliefs.
  • Beware of relying upon alcohol, drugs, or any other potentially harmful activities, for how these make you feel better in the moment. However, it may be at the risk of harming your awareness of what harms you and what you want to do about it.
  • Avoid toxic media and messengers that elicit feelings of anger. Exposing yourself to angry messages may elicit strong feelings that interfere with your academic performance or ability to engage with others.
  • Having a strong ethnic/racial identity can also serve as a protective factor in the face of discrimination. Being involved in ethnic/racial student organizations or communities can create a positive, affirmable, sustainable sense of self.
  • In short, be a part of communities that affirm and reaffirm your belonging and value, and who accept and support you. 

Practice Mindful Engagement

  • Find ways to stand up for yourself and others. Whether you use political activism, participate in advocacy groups, or give your opinions in discussions and writings, you get to choose what elevates you and your values over all things racist.
  • Pick which battles you fight and how hard. In doing so, make sure that you utilize your best judgment. Taking a stand, such as saying something about how you expect to be treated, will likely change the way you feel. However, recognize and appreciate that standing up for yourself and feeling better can also involve refusing to go along as if nothing happened, ending further participation with those who offend, or even protesting the wrongdoing in your own head without saying anything until you decide what if anything you want to say or do about it.
  • Seek out leaders and messengers who encourage and nurture you so that you do not lose yourself in the struggle. 

Recruit Allies

  • Let others know what has happened to you. Racist acts exclude people and their sense of belonging. It is all too easy to react by withdrawing and wind up so isolated that you cannot see how you belong in your community or in the world.
  • Talk with people who care about what you are going through, and who will help you get through it. This can be with friends, family, faith leaders, professors, staff, counselors and mentors.
  • At UWF, you are not alone. If you need a confidential space to sort out what is happening to you, the counselors at CAPS are a wonderful free resource. Make an appointment and come talk to one of our caring counselors.

Follow this link to learn more about discrimination and how to cope.