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Navigating Racial Trauma

Developing a healthier race story/safety plan

Inspired by an article in the New York Times (2017) by Jinnie Spiegler, developing a healthier race story and self-safety plan for harmful racist experiences can be a tool used by the BIPOC community to heal and mediate some of the emotions and feelings that occur when experiencing racial trauma and other forms of discrimination, oppression, and racism. Inspired by Black Feminist and Critical Race scholarship, that looks to develop “counter-stories and narratives” to commonplace and harmful stereotypes and scripts about people of colour, developing a compassionate racial story can contribute to increasing racial and self-esteem, changing and challenging discourse about people of colour, raising critical consciousness, and is a tool for independent and collective social justice and movement. Some suggestions that can aid in developing a healthier race story or narrative can be: 

  • Creation of word clouds and other arts-based activities; jot down or illustrate phases, themes, words, when thinking of your own “life story”. Feel free to repeat words or phrases and reflect on them with these questions: what do you see in the word cloud? Is it mostly negative, positive, or neither? What are your thoughts and feelings? Why are some words larger than others and if so, why? What patterns do you notice? 
    • This reflective exercise can begin to stimulate the innermost “scripts” and descriptions that we consciously and unconsciously apply to ourselves. You can begin to tease apart, based on your experiences, what is truly descriptive of how far you’ve come and all you’ve accomplished versus what definitions have been forced upon you
  • Write and Illustrate your own Race Stories 
    • This can look like journaling, audio or video recording, or drawing out your own story about race and racism. What might have been your first encounters or recent ones? When were times that you felt race and racism played a role in your life? And create narratives and expressed lived experiences around these points and others that you feel you need to express. 
      • This is also a reflective exercise where you can ask yourself: what is the earliest experience dealing with race and/or racism? How did you feel while this was happening or watching?  What was your response and what were the responses of others around you? What impact did it have on you? What did you learn from the experience? Did the encounters change you in any way? 
      • These stories can be kept private, shared with professionals to unpack, or with close groups, you feel comfortable with. These stories can also assist in pinpointing where harmful and discriminatory experiences occur to develop a safety plan on how to engage, escape, and address your situation

Engage in Social Media 

  • Hearing other people's race-related stories or empowerment stories through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other modalities can be a source through which we draw strengths and inspiration. It can also be a validating tool to reflect on your own experiences; recognizing that other people are going through it too! Following instrumental, inspirational, and powerful people who reflect your race can assist in challenging the stereotypes and scripts or racist discourse that may have been internalized over time to compose strengths-based narratives and lenses. However, engaging with social media should not be done without precaution or critique; view our “critical consumptions of social media tab” to ensure you are engaging in the healthiest way possible for you! 
  • Discuss current events: 
    • Possibly joining a group or engaging conversationally with family members and friends that SHARE your viewpoints can be a helpful tool to unpack the socio-political events and occurrences that can be affecting you and your mental health as well as your view of yourself. Working alongside folks you are comfortable with can allow you to find stories of interest or sites of social justice, collective unpack and health from world events, and form social justice or actionable community initiatives. Keeping abreast of social events and engaging in a community that reflects your identity can be a powerful educational, eye-opening, and community-building tool. 
  • Read Diverse Literature and Media
    • Whether it be scholarly, non-fiction, fiction, blogs, podcasts, zines, etc; engaging in diverse literature can help disrupt the socialization that we have gone through as a product of either being raised or exposed to Canadian culture and ethics. This can help develop different viewpoints of your and other races, validate your experiences, and assist in critically reflecting on harmful and helpful ideologies and scripts that may have become internalized over time. By exploring literature and films on the nature of stereotypes, racism and implicit bias, explorations of power and impact of offensive and racist objects, and different voices and expressions of assimilating into countries can help unpack, strategize, ponder and reflect, and impact your narrative and ideologies as well as your actions and interactions. 

Take actions 

  • When you’ve experienced racial burnout, racial trauma, and repeated racial stress, it is easy to feel that the world is hopeless, to become depressed, and to become disengaged from your community.   At times, developing a healthier narrative includes being around people, bouncing off ideas, and strategizing for change. The phrase “Be the change you want to see” really is just that! Sometimes we achieve internal change through striving and working for external change. Joining social justice organizations, racially reflective groups, strategy round tables, protests, etc all assist in challenging the unsafe experiences of racism you bump up against, but also aid in giving a sense of hope, purpose, and community. 

Safety Plan

Having an informal safety plan that includes pathways to conflict resolutions, phrasing, assessment of racial trauma, tactics for disengaging safely, and safe spaces is an important and necessary tool for BIPOC individuals in mediating harm.

This can be an informal jotted down list that you carry with you to refer in anticipation of, at the moment, or post- harmful discriminatory experience. A loose format to inform your safety plan, at your discretion includes: 

  • Who to call to talk 
  • Emergency phone numbers, contacts, and/or hotlines 
  • Places/ People to call or see to resolve and/or address the conflict 
  • People and Places to avoid/disengage 
  • Nearby safe space to go to 
  • Self-care activities to engage in 
  • Phrasing to disengage or reject disclosure 
  • Human and Legal rights to be aware of that pertain to racist or discriminatory situations and experiences

Critical consumption of social media

Social media can be considered a double-edged sword to the BIPOC individual.

While social media is a tool to keep abreast of the latest news, to build community, for light-hearted engagement and discussion, and for self-expression and representation, social media can also be a harmful space where triggers, misinformation, and misrepresentation, racist and discriminative rhetoric, and harmful images and depictions take place. Critically consuming media can be used as a technique to mediate racial burnout, racial stress, and racial trauma, especially when socio-political contexts in relation to your race and culture begin to arise (ie. protests, murders, civil unrest, etc). Essentially, developing mindfulness around the images, text, discourse, discussion, and people you follow and engage with on social media can assist in protecting and buffering your physical and mental well-being. We have compiled some tools and considerations to critically consume media for you to take up, as you see fit. 

  • Tools and considerations  
    • Be mindful of following pages or engaging in articles, blogs, and other social media sources that frequently show and distort violence on racialized bodies, police brutality, alt-right views, and language. Often these depictions are traumatizing and have long-lasting effects on how we read and see news and engagement with other people 
    • Developing news literacy is important; if you are a political or news buff that is okay! Do some research around the news outlets that you consume; are they endorsed by political parties? What does their representation look like, is it diverse? Do they support harmful views and other forms of hate speech? Are they known to misinform or distort information to influence the masses? After reflecting on these points, choose to follow and consume news outlets that are aligned with your vision to avoid misinformation and further harm. 
  • Allow yourself to take breaks as needed from social media and media content; especially when it becomes anxiety and anger-inducing. At times, we begin to go down the rabbit hole of social media and it leads to places that are exhausting. If you begin to recognize that after using certain apps, viewing certain pages, or just being on social media in general that you are exhausted, emotionally and mentally affected, or becoming obsessive, TAKE A BREAK! A break can look like: deleting your app for a few days-few weeks, refraining from commenting and liking, permanently deleting certain apps that are harmful to you, or doing an overhaul of who you follow and engage with 
  • Avoid Twitter fingers; oh, don’t we love to debate and express ourselves online. However, sometimes, there are folks there just to start arguments and aggravate you from halfway across the world. Avoid getting into lengthy arguments with faceless folks online--they are there for the sole purpose of zapping your energy and honestly, it’s not worth it! 
  • Focus your media consumption on following and engaging with voices from the margins, people who reflect your identity and viewpoints, and those that offer strategies and strengths-based perspectives. This can assist in acquiring knowledge are certain issues and occurrences and can also be a source of collectivity and healing
  • Don’t feel like it’s all on you! Often when socio-political things are happening it becomes the “buzz-event” or the week or months to come. Especially when the news pertains to racial tensions and issues, sometimes as a BIPOC individual, you feel the weight and pressure of having to represent your group, your race, push out the latest and correct facts, or voice your solidarity. This can take a lot of time, effort, research, and uncompensated labour to educate other people but to also feel like you are not “letting down your group”. Affirm yourself in knowing that just because you choose to disengage from this discussion or news, it does not mean you are not “for the cause or for the people”. Social justice can be expressed in a number of ways; do what is safest for you and know it's okay to take a break; your people are resilient and care for you, they got this one!
  • Assessing your racial burnout after media consumption: a great tool to assess if you are getting burnt out from social media is to log your thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions based on the media you are consuming. Are there certain pictures and pages that induce anger and anxiety responses; log this and the cascading thought patterns that often come with it. At the end of the day, week or month, take the time to reflect and you will be able to find triggers, your reactions, and any other changes that can occur (ie. sleeping, eating, tightness in the chest, anger, etc) from racial burn out to strategize ways to change your media consumption.

Tips in addressing difficult conversations

A central theme for BIPOC folks and students is the notion of uncompensated labour and having to educate others.

Here’s the thing: information is universal and has become highly accessible; you do not have to be the unpaid teacher of white counterparts or other groups that seek to understand, challenge, or lament on your experiences. Much like being critical of posting and consuming social media, be critical of the conversations you engage in and whether folks are asking you to unnecessarily disclose your experience, teach or provide them literature/news/pages, or ask you to support/educate groups without your consent or comfort. The power of expressing yourself within your terms and saying no is truly empowering and affirming. However, it can be awkward or uncomfortable, or at times we may feel it is our responsibility and not our right to decide not to engage, educate or disclose. But the reality is, people can find the same information they seek from you in blogs, social media, formalized literature, movies/videos, podcasts, and other information-sharing modalities should they wish to seek it. The labour of learning does not have to happen on your back; and should you wish to educate, then feel affirmed in charging a fee ;)

The Power of Self Expression and Saying No!

While folks looking to learn off of you may feel fragile, upset, uncomfortable, angry, or jolted when you refuse to disclose or educate them, just know those are not emotions for you to take on or to internalize.

Often, when we say no, invalidating comments like “well it’s because you don’t know”, “I don’t understand why you can’t explain this to me”, “It’s because it’s not real/true”, and “How else am I going to know what to do” may follow. Developing what is known as “consistent assertive communication” can help in being clear, straightforward, and setting boundaries in compassionate ways. This can be developed for in-person communication and online communications. Some phrasing to shut down disclosure and teaching someone or to express when you are willing to communicate can be found below for you to use as you wish:  

"Hey, I hope you're well. Right now I just am not in the space to have this conversation but I appreciate you reaching out!"

"I am a bit emotionally depleted and its been a long day but I'd still love to talk. Are there any other topics you want to chat about''

"thank you for checking on me and paying attention to the movement! I can't provide those resources for you at the moment but I hear there are loads of accessible things online right now! I'd love to hear your thoughts when you've read some! Let's talk soon" 

"I'd love to chat about this when you have some ideas to bounce back and forth with me" 

"I can't think of an example to give you at this moment but there are a lot of general experiences (enter race or culture) people face with racism that you can read about online." OR "I am not comfortable giving an example right now as a lot of this has brought things to the surface for me; I have some healing to do but maybe we can talk about that someday".

How to address teaching staff and administration with concerns

The above phrasing is useful for interpersonal communications where power differentials may not be present.

With that being said, we recognize the same communication may not be comfortable to use when trying to express your concerns and viewpoints or when shutting down conversations with teachers, employers, culture, etc. You may worry how addressing your concern or refusing to disclose or educate, may affect your relationships, grades, job, or future. However, it is your right as a student and community member to have your voice heard and your concerns addressed, especially when discrimination and racism are present. In addition to the pathways through which you can address conflict within the community or school (please see tabs on conflict resolutions pathways for McMaster and community resources), some helpful phrasing or techniques can be: 

  • Requesting a private meeting with faculty and or administration member to discuss concerns one on one 
  • Ask for a representative and/or person that you are comfortable with to mediate a private discussion and to be present 
  • If other students feel the same, mobilize with them to collectively address with faculty or administration member (there is strength in numbers) 
    • Root conversation in concrete examples, what the effects are, and if possible, reference to the repetitive fashion in which this has occurred in the same 
    • Give the concrete example names--it is a microaggression, dismissal, silencing, etc.  
    • While you may express your emotions, the inability to control them in a conversation MAY work against you although uncontrollable emotions as a product of racist or harmful experiences are NORMAL and okay; unpacking surface level emotions before meeting independently or collectively can assist 
  • Request a meeting with your faculty Dean or chair if you do not feel comfortable expressing directly to the source 
  • Express in written or recorded form and submit for them to listen; a follow-up meeting will likely be requested 
  • Become well versed in your student rights in the case you may be challenged or misconstrued (look at conflict pathways tab for language and resources) 
  • If you are comfortable addressing it in the moment or in the classroom, helpful phrasing to shut down conversation can be (Avoid “I” statements): 
    • “There is a lot of misinformation and misrepresentation in this conversation. As a precaution, we should stop here”
    • “This conversation is becoming harmful and uncomfortable. Are we able to move forward to the next topic” 
    • “What we are discussing does not connect to the learning/lesson content being presented at this moment; we should refocus” 
    • “What you are saying is racist and discriminatory. I encourage you to learn more about this topic” 
    • “Playing devil’s advocate is not progressing this discussion or offering learning opportunities. It is actually quite harmful.” 
    • “I think this is a moment where you can intervene, this discussion is becoming unproductive” 
    • “This material only reflects one perspective/viewpoint. Are you able to provide other examples or arguments from different sources or other forms of representation”