Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Coping with toxic racism

The past is rooted in the present

By Ebonee Anderson
July 21, 2020

How we choose to frame the perils of racism in the history of this country consequently impacts how we address the issues of racism today. The past is rooted in the present. The tragic murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor was not the first “wake-up” call for America. Nor is seeing Latinx children and families seeking asylum detained in “cages” at ICE Detention Centers, or Asians being the target of xenophobia during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx and People of Color have been sounding the alarm of systemic racism for generations only to have the snooze button hit on their realities time and time again.

Racism, white supremacy, anti-blackness, and xenophobia culture has been embedded in the socio-economic systems of America for centuries. This is evident in the colonization and attempt to eradicate the indigenous people of the land, to Slavery, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to segregation and Japanese internment camps. And this is evident in the present day– from disparities in health care access and outcomes, to achievement gaps and the criminalization and mass incarceration of black and brown individuals, and to the realities of race and police brutality being symbolized in the dangerously false accusation of Amy Cooper or watching in disbelief as George Floyd grasped for life while crying out “I can’t breathe”. The devastation of recent tragedies have rightfully sparked unrest and protests, but more often than not, this kind of racially forged trauma is not recorded, does not receive media attention, and does not go viral.

Stating race is a social construct and arguing “All Lives Matter” may sound more inclusive, but neither sentiment offers a remedy to the lived experience of the Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and people of color who continue to endure the oppressive systems of white supremacy and racism. Many of the same oppressive systems that upheld slavery in the past are still very present today. The only real remedy is to acknowledge and dismantle the structures of racism and white supremacy that has been embedded in workplace culture and the education, healthcare, political, social, criminal, religious, and economic systems of this country.

Addressing trauma & self-care

Acknowledge the effects of trauma. It’s OK to not be OK. Watching and hearing about the tragic killings of black and other people of color can be deeply distressing. Trauma is disturbing and can affect you both physically and emotionally. Give yourself the time and permission to feel a full spectrum of emotions. You may experience disbelief, horror, fear, rage, sadness, fatigue, and grief. At times you may even feel numb and desensitized, but everyone response to trauma is different. Whatever you are feeling is OK.

Practice self-care and seek balance. Set boundaries around when and how often you consume social media and limit your engagement with certain images, information, and conversations that leave you emotionally drained. We can’t ignore the painful reality of injustice, but you can and should deliberately seek joy and preserve your peace of mind. As Black poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Likewise, make sure to include some form of movement or physical exercise daily, consider meditation or yoga, nourish your body with the necessary nutrients, and prioritize rest by getting at least 7 hours a sleep daily.

Affirm yourself and your resilience. When you actively resist internalized oppression, you defy the direct and subliminal messages of racism in our society. Your life matters and you are valued. Delight and find hope in the unique beauty and resilience of your cultural group and community. Celebrate your achievements, your wholeness, and the progression towards equality and social justice. More than likely you have already developed effective coping skills to help your persevere through all kinds of pain and trauma. Rely on those skills continuously and center yourself in self-love.

Decolonize healing. Learn and educate yourself on the history of resilience and perseverance in your family and community. Explore and embrace the culturally-based practices that have successfully sustained people in your cultural group and communities for centuries.

Get connected. Loneliness and isolation can cause physical harm to our bodies and minds. It is important to intentionally seek community and surround yourself with a strong support system. Connect with a UW Faculty & Staff Affinity Group, confide in family and friends, find an online community (especially when physical distancing is required for public health), or consider contacting UW CareLink for trauma-informed counseling services and additional resources to help you cope during difficult times.

Mental health support

In spite of their plight, Black/African-Americans and other communities of color remain resilient and continue to thrive. While resilience is commendable, the effects of multi-generational trauma and systemic oppression can lead to psychological distress and unaddressed mental health issues such as PTSD, Anxiety, or other depressive disorders. Daily exposure to micro aggressions, disparate access to resources and opportunities, bias in hiring processes, and the spirit of exclusivity threaded in workplace, make it difficult to cope with the toxic effects of racism. We have a long way to go in the fight for systemic equality, and a healthy mind and body is vital to continue the fight. Below are some tools and resources to help you cope and support your mental health:

UW CareLink can provide easy access and connect you to free, short-term counseling. Highly trained clinicians will listen to your concerns and help you or your family members deal with the any trauma or issue you are facing. To get started call toll-free: 866-598-3978 (TDD 800-697-0353), available 24/7. Learn more about UW CareLink.

Additional UW CareLink Social Justice Resources
  • Understanding the Trauma of Racism
  • Speaking to Children About Diversity and Discrimination
Culturally specific mental health resources for BIPOC
Anti-racist and social justice resources

The burden of Anti- Racism and social justice work should not be on the black, indigenous, and people of color who experience systemic oppression. Racism hurts all people regardless of race or ethnicity, and fighting for equality is all of our responsibility. It is important to educate ourselves and explore issues related to identity, privilege, implicit racism, white guilt and fragility, internalized oppression, and the toxic presence of white supremacy that is embedded in our everyday lives. There are several tools and resources available online from books to podcasts to YouTube videos and Ted Talks.

Listed below is variety of resources to help get you started:

Resources for leaders