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4 Buffers Against the Toxic Effects of Racism on Mental Health

Racist encounters are stressful and detrimental to Black and African American mental health. It shouldn't be Black people's burden to right these wrongs—it's everyone's job to be anti-racist. But until there is equity, here are some tools to protect against the toxic effects of racism on your mental health. 

By
Jade Wu, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #310
The Quick And Dirty
  • To protect against racism's toxic effects, you can start by showing yourself compassion and giving space to your emotions.
  • In addition to connecting with yourself, you can also connect to your community and social networks for support.
  • Cultivate your own racial identity, including acknowledging your relationship with race and allowing cultural pride.
  • When confronting racist encounters, do it with assertive communication and refraining from being passive-aggressive.

Last week, in the first of our 3-part series on racism and mental health, we took an unflinching look at how racism negatively affects Black and African American mental health. It’s not pretty. Racism not only adds day-to-day stress but it also affects the way a person sees themselves and the world over the long term. Its damaging effects on the brain can even be passed on through generations. And on top of it all, those who suffer racism also have less access to quality mental healthcare.

What can we do about such a bleak situation? The tough news is that there is much difficult work to be done, and no amount of well-meaning movies, TV shows, articles, or podcasts will be enough. The encouraging news is that we're increasingly doing more research and giving much-needed attention to ways to protect the mental health of minorities affected by racism.

We cannot place the full burden of coping with racism on the people who are oppressed by it.

One shortcoming of this research is that it focuses mostly on coping with interpersonal racism—in other words, what each person who experiences racism can do for themselves.

Before we go on, I want to acknowledge that this is not enough. We cannot place the full burden of coping with racism on the people who are oppressed by it. Everybody has to be involved, and we need to make much bigger changes at every level of society. This is why we will dedicate the next full episode to steps that white and other privileged people can take to help, starting with acknowledging and dismantling our own defensiveness.

But today, I do want to provide listeners with practical advice for protecting their own mental health from the damaging effects of racism.

1. Start with self-compassion and acknowledgment of emotions

When you experience racism, you’re fighting battles all the time. Whether they're outright legal struggles to maintain your rights or more subtle battles like engaging in John Henryism (working ever harder to get the respect you deserve) … the fight is exhausting. The last thing your mind needs to battle is itself.

Protect time each day to do nothing but be with yourself in the here and now.

Give yourself time and space to be mindful of your emotions. This means protecting time each day to do nothing but be with yourself in the here and now—no distractions, no multitasking, no social media, and for Black women especially, no tamping down your emotions so you can be strong for others.

Operating at 110% may often feel necessary and unavoidable, especially for the Black Superwoman whom families and communities rely upon. But being everything to all people, while suppressing your own emotions, is a sure way to burn out.

So, at least once a day for 30 minutes, say “no” to requests and let yourself simply be. You can do it standing, sitting, walking, lying down … as long as you listen to your body and your emotions. Let the tears flow if needed. Tell yourself something compassionate and forgiving. Speak to yourself the way you would to a child with a scraped knee or hurt feelings. It’s okay. Acknowledging your feelings is a sign of strength.

2. Lean on social networks and cultural communities

Connecting with yourself is an important ingredient in mental health. But connecting with others is just as important. We need the support of others, whether they're family and friends, or members of our church, workplace, or neighborhood communities.

Leaning on others is generally associated with better well-being among minorities.

For Black Americans, the truth is that not a lot of research has directly tested whether social support serves as a buffer for racism’s effects on mental health. Studies have found that talking to others about racism is a common coping strategy, but it’s unclear if the mental health damage racism inflicts is directly undone by it. But we do know that leaning on others is generally associated with better well-being among minorities.

Here's one important note—when you look for social support, make sure you get the real thing. Sometimes, doomscrolling through social media can give you the illusion that you’re connected, but it may actually be keeping you isolated from real interactions. It's time to get old-fashioned! Have one-on-one or small group conversations, even if they have to take place over the phone or the Internet for now. Play games or sports with others, build things together, and create shared experiences—these are the interactions that will boost your mood and give you a true feeling of belonging.

3. Cultivate your own racial identity

Racial identity is complicated—it’s made up of both how we see ourselves and how others see us. Scholars can write many dissertations on this topic—and they have! Some have proposed that we develop our racial identities in stages, starting with conforming with the majority’s views, then resisting and rebelling against those views, and then ultimately settling into integration, where we're confident and proud of our own racial heritage and also appreciate and support other groups.

Of course, not everyone’s racial identity journey is the same. Experiences with racism, inherited racial trauma, access to resources and support … all of these things can affect a person’s relationship to race. That said, having a strong sense of racial identity could theoretically offer a person a sense of belonging, as well as a shield against racism’s damaging effects on self-esteem.

In a sample of Black college students, having cultural pride was associated with more well-being.

For Black Americans, there is some evidence that having a strong sense of racial identity may protect against some of the psychological stress that comes from racism. For example, Black high school students who consider their race a central part of who they are have fewer depressive symptoms than those who don’t think much about their race. In a sample of Black college students, having cultural pride was associated with more well-being.

The advice to lean into your racial identity might be more complicated than it seems. Another study showed that while having a strong racial identity somewhat protected Black young adults’ psychological well-being from the damaging effects of discrimination, it also made them more likely to experience discrimination. It’s possible that having a stronger racial identity makes a person more aware of receiving discrimination, or that it makes them more of a target, or both.

I know this sounds confusing, but if I had to choose one side—to either lean into cultivating your racial identity or the opposite—I would choose the former.  We can only control what we do, not what others do. And we shouldn't feel required to sacrifice what's meaningful to us for the chance that other people might be less prejudiced against us. 

4. Practice assertiveness when you want to address a racist interaction

Racist encounters are very difficult to navigate. They can range from annoying to hurtful to infuriating or worse.

Let's focus on a specific type of racist interaction where there's no imminent danger. It's still important to address the issue because racism is damaging to your well-being. Some examples of racism that affect you without putting you in immediate danger could include being mistaken for another Black person at work even though you look nothing alike, being the subject of suspicion from someone in authority, or being passed over for opportunities for no discernible reason.

It's absolutely your right to honor your values by standing up for yourself.

There's no algorithm for deciding when to confront racism—you get to decide which battles to fight and when it's important to fight them. You're not personally responsible for addressing every injustice, especially when doing so would cause you more harm than good. But it's also absolutely your right to honor your values by standing up for yourself.

If you do want to address racist interactions, it can be helpful to practice assertive communication—in other words, communicating clearly, firmly, and fairly. Being assertive doesn't mean being aggressive or domineering. Successful assertiveness involves speaking your mind in a way you can feel good about. You maintain your dignity and integrity, and you don't stoop to rudeness or hurt others.

For a full step-by-step guide to assertive communication, with detailed examples, check out my episode on how to be assertive without being a jerk. For today, a summary of dos and don’ts.

Do use “I” statements to describe what you see and how you feel.

“I noticed you haven't asked other customers to show their ID before making a purchase, but you've asked me. This seems unfair to me."

Do state what you would like the outcome of the interaction to be.

“I'd like my server to apologize, and then I'd like to have another server for the rest of my meal.”

Do reinforce the other party for doing right.

This helps people become less defensive and makes them more likely to do right in the future.

“I appreciate the way you've listened and responded to my concern."

Don’t accuse the other person of thinking or feeling a certain way.

Focus only on the behavior you can observe. Instead of saying “You’re clearly a racist,” you can say “What you said was disrespectful to me.”

Don’t be passive-aggressive.

Throwing side-eye and using other non-direct hostility won’t get you what you need. Instead of saying “I guess that’s how it’s going to be,” you can say, “I don’t appreciate being treated like this.”

Again, safety first. In situations that could escalate or become dangerous, do whatever it takes to get out of the situation.

These tips in no way suggest that the solution to racism is for affected people to practice good communication skills—not even close! They're merely a tool for your toolkit to help you protect your own mental health.

In next week’s episode, I'll talk more directly to non-minorities—white and white-adjacent people who are not only in a position to be allies but have the responsibility to do so. We'll get very specific about implicit bias, defensiveness, and cultural humility.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.