Coping with Race Related Stress

Resources for Racialized York University Students and the York University Community

Topics covered on this page include the following:

Overview
Understanding Race-Related Stress
Consequences of Racism for Racialized Students
How Race-Related Stress Impacts Mental Health
Recommendations on Coping with Race-Related Stress
Mental Health and Community Support Resources for Black and Racialized Students
Resources for Taking action
How to Be an Ally to the Black Community and to Racialized Students
Additional Resources on how to be Anti-Racist
Further Reading

Overview

The University experience can be a stressful time for most students, and for racialized students these stressors are often exacerbated by the burden of race-related stress, for instance experiencing microaggressions in interreacting with peers, faculty and staff on campus or an overt act of racism at a part-time job.

The purpose of this resource is to

  1. Define race-related stress and discuss the impact it can have on students’ academic and social success health and mental health,
  2. Provide recommendations on how students can effectively cope with race-related stress,
  3. Ensure students have the appropriate information and resources to address any issues of racism both on and off campus so they can achieve their academic potential and flourish as members of the York University community and
  4. Provide information and resources to York staff, faculty and students on how they can be allies to racialized students and help in the fight against racism.

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Understanding Race-Related Stress

Experiencing racism in any form is degrading, upsetting and stressful. While overt racism, such as a racial slur, is obvious and public, covert racism is disguised and subtle. Covert racism typically displays itself as “microaggressions”, which are the intentional or unintentional indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour experience in their day to day interactions. A racialized student being told they speak English very well when it’s actually their first language or being followed around by security while shopping or receiving comments such as "you're not like other Muslims" or “where are you really from?” are all examples of microaggressions.

Because racism in Canadian society is more often covert than overt in nature, frequently students may be left unsure if the racism they experienced is actually real or not, and the uncertainty around this can lead to a lot of distress. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that someone can experience race-related stress even if they were mistaken that a racist act occurred. Furthermore, the perpetrator may not recognize their actions as racist because they lack an awareness of their implicit biases (the attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions people carry about racialized groups of people). As such, incidences of racism often go unrecognized, which can result in further confusion, anger, humiliation and frustration for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour).

Racial trauma is a form of race-based stress which refers to BIPOC’s reactions to incidences real or perceived of racial discrimination.  Experiences such as harmful or injurious threats, humiliating and shameful incidences, and witnessing racial discrimination towards BIPOC can result in racial trauma. Cumulative racial trauma, that is the ongoing exposure to microaggressions, vicarious traumatization as well as the invisibility of historical roots from which racial trauma stems, can have serious implications for mental and physical health for BIPOC (Comas-Diaz et al., 2019). Racism along the intersections of social determinants of health, such as poverty, under-housing, food insecurity, and precarious employment, is a co-morbidity factor for other illnesses (Black Health Matters, 2020).

Racism does not look the same for all BIPOC. It is important to highlight and distinguish anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism to account for the varied ways that racism affects different races. Black and Indigenous individuals in Canada are two ethno-racial groups that have historically suffered the most in terms of brutality, hatred and discrimination, and continue to do so in the present-day. This is evidenced by the treatment of Black and Indigenous peoples within the justice system, educational institution, child protection system, and the healthcare system. 

A long-held belief in Canada has been that racism is “not as bad” or does not exist here. Rendering anti-Black racism as historically invisible is consistently done by placing the focus on the U.S.’s treatment of Black populations “as being far worse”. “In a country when the stories of Black and Brown people go unheard and are rendered invisible, the hope for equity becomes that much more challenging” (Baines, 2020).  Because of this, Black people frequently experience intense mistrust and scrutiny as a part of their daily life, in workplaces, public spaces, school and public institutions, including Universities. What this means for many Black students is a constant need to be extra vigilant to ensure their own safety in day to day life, being at a disadvantage in obtaining the same opportunities as their peers, and an increased risk of developing mental health and physical health issues.

“Anti-Black racism is a historic, pervasive and systemic issue in Toronto – affecting the life chances of more than 400,000 people of African descent who call Toronto home,” (statement on the City of Toronto’s website, https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/get-involved/community/toronto-for-all/anti-black-racism-2/).

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Consequences of Racism for Racialized Students

Pressure to break stereotypes

Race-related stress for students can be related to the experience of “stereotype threat”, which involves the fear that your actions will confirm existing stereotypes about your racial group. For example, a Black female student may not want to engage in a heated class debate or disagree with a classmate to avoid conforming to the stereotype of the “angry Black woman”.  Or the racist belief that members of some racialized groups are less intelligent may lead some students to feel the pressure to overperform in order to prove their intelligence and that they deserve to be at University, while at the same time it could lead other students to have anxiety about making mistakes because their performance is being heavily scrutinized.

Being a “representative” of one’s racial group

Due to the lack of diversity in some classrooms, a student may experience pressure in being regarded by peers or superiors as a “representative” of their racial group rather than just as an individual.  For example, a Chinese student may feel an expectation to be the authority on the lives of all Chinese people. Outside of classroom a student may also find themselves subjected to tokenism at their job, where they may feel they have been hired only to create the appearance of inclusivity and diversity or to be the token voice of their racial group.

Fear of the consequences of speaking up or taking action

Racialized students may find it difficult to respond to acts of racism due to uncertainty and self-doubt but also because of power dynamics. This is particularly the case when for example a student experiences racism in the classroom or at their part-time job. Students may worry that if they speak up and address an act of racism by a professor or TA that then they will be unfairly graded, disliked, or be made fun of for being “too sensitive”. Similarly, with an employer, they may worry that if they will be ridiculed, fired or taken off the schedule if they report an incident of racism.

Feeling isolated and like an outsider

Racialized students may struggle to engage in campus life e.g. participating in campus activities such as student clubs, sports, or even to engage in classroom discussions because of a sense of being an outsider if there are not other racialized students in that space or because the student believes that their physical appearance, cultural norms, practices, perspectives, or beliefs are not welcome.

Impact on Mental Health: feeling anxious, hypervigilant, frustrated, helpless, depressed, angry etc.

When racialized students experience racism, it not only causes problems in their social and economic lives, but also negatively impacts their physical and psychological health. (see How Race-Related Stress Impacts Mental Health section below)

Difficulties with academic achievement due to mental health issues

The psychological effects of racism can in turn cause a negative effect on a students’ class participation, assignments, and exams because mental health issues often lead to difficulties with concentration, motivation and other aspects of cognitive functioning.

Internalized Racism and the Imposter Syndrome

Sometimes racialized students internalize negative, racist stereotypes and this lowers self-esteem. Imposter syndrome describes the experience of believing you are not good enough, not intelligent or capable despite your accomplishments. Students struggling with imposter syndrome may become fearful that others will find out that they are not capable, feel as if they do not belong at University regardless of their achievements or positive feedback, and they fear failure.

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How Race-Related Stress Impacts Mental Health

“Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments.” -Dr. Ebony McGee, Vanderbilt University

The trauma response that is set off by racism, notably the cumulative effects of frequent experiences of racism, often leads people of colour to experience negative emotional and behavioural responses and health concerns. These responses and concerns can include:

Emotional

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Hypervigilance (being on guard to respond to the next insult)
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Shame
  • Grief/loss
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Self-blame
  • Self-doubt

Behavioural

  • Avoidance (e.g. avoiding going to class after experiencing an incident of racism by a peer)
  • Ruminating (e.g. negative self-talk, going over and over an incident in your mind)
  • Disengaging or Self-Isolating (e.g. no longer participating in class)
  • Substance Use
  • Overeating or Restricting
  • Self-harm
  • Disrupted sleep patterns (insomnia or nightmares)
  • Aggressive behaviour or bullying others

Health Concerns

  • Muscle Tension and Pain
  • Headaches
  • Mental illness (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Heart Disease
  • Hypertension
  • Increased Heart Rate or Blood Pressure

Unfortunately, many racialized students may avoid seeking help because they worry that they will face racism when accessing health or mental health services and this can often create a barrier to getting their health or mental health needs addressed appropriately.  If this is the case it is important to break down these barriers by self-advocating by asking for a practitioner who is a person of colour or by seeking services from agencies that identify as working from an anti-oppressive or anti-racist approach and/or are culturally appropriate. (see Mental Health Resources tab below)

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Recommendations on Coping with Race-Related Stress

Racialized people have been coping and developing resiliency around race related stress for hundreds of years through building community, having good support systems, engaging in advocacy/social action, and getting involved in self-expression through art, music, and comedy. Recent research shows that most commonly when microaggressions occur BIPOC make themselves racially muted as a coping strategy for avoiding further racial trauma. This is done because POCI anticipated the responses and needs of White individuals in interracial contexts (Liu et al., 2019; Comas-Diaz et al., 2019).

Here are some recommendations to consider but asking family, friends, or racialized professionals for advice around how they have coped may also be helpful to you.

Build a support network

Connecting with other people with similar experiences can help you to feel validated and supported and you can learn how others have coped and handled situations. Finding a community with shared values as yours can also help you feel more connected and less isolated. (*If you do not have a support network consider joining SCHW’s Racialized Students Support Group.

Develop a Positive Cultural Identity and Strong Sense of Self

This is particularly helpful in contending with race-related stress. Considering joining campus groups, clubs or associations that welcome your cultural norms and ideals, or cultural groups/community centres and events in the GTA that can offer cultural validation and a sense of connection and community.

Find positive role models or a mentor

Having someone to look up to and learn from how they navigated dealing with racism can also be helpful. Role models don’t have to be people you actually have met and have a relationship with - they can be public figures or historical figures that you can turn to for guidance. Reading autobiographies on such figures can offer support and inspiration. Finding a mentor who looks like you and has achieved something you aspire to can help you to stay motivated and encouraged.

Find Creative forms of Self-Expression

For example, music, art, comedy, poetry etc.

Connect with your Spirituality or Faith

If spirituality or religion plays an important role in your life, utilize your belief system as a way to cope with stress. This could involve connecting with others who share your spiritual beliefs, confiding in your spiritual leaders, or participating in your spiritual practices (e.g., prayer, meditation).

Practice Self-care and Self-Compassion

Be kind to yourself and attend to your emotions by acknowledging and accepting that your emotional reactions to racism make sense and that racism is painful. Use compassionate coping thoughts such as “this is a tough moment so I will be kind to myself”.

Consider finding ways to take care of yourself and integrate these activities as part of your daily routine. Common self-care activities include exercise, meditation/yoga, spending time with friends, spending time in nature, healthy eating, and having a healthy sleep routine. Other ways to practice self-care can be respecting your needs or limits by setting boundaries with others or ending toxic relationships, journal writing, saying daily positive affirmations, and limiting negative news or social media.

Reframe Negative Thoughts

Instead of thinking “I’m not good enough and I can’t do this”, reframe it to “the fact that I feel “not good enough” does not mean that I really am. I have done well in the past and my accomplishments got me to University”. Instead of engaging in negative self-talk, make a list of your strengths. Look back at examples of your own successes and remind yourself of your accomplishments. Similarly, focus on your resiliency and how you have overcome obstacles or negative experiences with racism in the past. Tell yourself positive statements such as “I have gotten through it before so I can get through it again”. At the end of your day you can also think back and write down 3 positive experiences or things you appreciated about yourself that day.

Visualize your success

Visualization is more powerful than a lot of people realize. Close your eyes and visualize yourself completing a task, doing well on an exam, graduating, or getting your dream job; when you visualize, take note of what you see, feel (emotions) and the sensations in your body. You can also write down your goals or get creative and make a vision board. Visualization can help to keep you focussed, calm, and can build confidence.

Make a plan around how you want to respond to microaggressions and other acts of racism when they occur.

Decide what incidents are important for you to challenge and what is not. Document any potential acts of racism, talk to someone you trust about it, and consider reporting it. It is important to be informed of the relevant anti-racism policies that are in place in any institution or workplace you are connected to as well as the laws within Ontario and Canada at large.

Consider using an approach such as Dr. J. Luke Wood andDr. Frank Harris III’s five step R.A.V.E.N. approach to respond to microagressions:

  1. Redirecting the conversation or interaction,
  2. Asking probing questions,
  3. Values clarification,
  4. Emphasizing your own thoughts, and
  5. Offering concrete next steps. (see How to Respond to Racial Microaggressions When They Occur https://diverseeducation.com/article/176397/)

Sue at al. (2019) argues that silence, inaction and passivity around behaviours exhibiting microaggression support and proliferate perpetrator behaviours which reverberate from the individual, institutional to societal levels.  They introduce a 4-part strategic framework to address microaggressions through what they term microinterventions:

  1. Making the “invisible” visible (e.g. through asking for clarification, challenging stereotypes, making the implicit explicit);
  2. Disarm the microaggression (e.g. by expressing your values and setting limits; describe what is happening; using non-verbal communication (such as leaving the room in protest); interrupt and redirecting);
  3. Educate the perpetrator (e.g. differentiate between intent and impact; promote empath);
  4. Seek external reinforcement and support (e.g. seek therapy/ counselling; if it is safe to do, report to an authority figure, seek support through spirituality/religious communities; set up a buddy system). The authors stated that context is paramount before recommending microinterventions. They advise that White allies and bystanders who intervene may have a greater impact than the response from the target of microagression.     

Become involved in Social Justice efforts

Be strategic in social action and only take on what you feel you can manage without putting pressure on yourself or setting high expectations. Try not to get discouraged when changes are slow to happen, but also do not underestimate the power you have to facilitate change.

Get involved in social justice efforts or groups on or off campus

If you have tried some of the above coping strategies and still feel you need support please consider seeing a Counsellor at SCHW for walk-in counselling or short-term counselling or consider joining the Racialized Students Support Group.

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Mental Health and Community Support Resources for Black and Racialized Students

City of Toronto Anti-Black racism and mental health service providers (Includes Community Health Centres serving BIPOC)

Across Boundaries: Provides mental health and addiction services for racialized communities

Black Women in Motion: Not-For-Profit, Consent and Mental Health Education, Advocacy and Support for Black Womxn, Femmes and Non-Binary folx

ByBlacks.com is a bold, award-winning, innovative online magazine serving the Black Canadian community. With over 100 writers covering topics ranging from race relations, Black Canadian history, spirituality, fitness, parenting, fashion, food and more, ByBlacks.com helps our readers live better lives.

The Effects of Racism on Mental Health: How to Cope

Nia Centre For the Arts: A Toronto-based not for profit arts centre that supports showcases and promotes an appreciation of arts from across the African Diaspora

Self-Care for People of Colour

The Link Between Experiences of Racism and Stress and Anxiety for Black Americans: A Mindfulness and Acceptance-Based Coping Approach

Grief is a direct impact of racism: Eight ways to support yourself

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Resources for Taking action

If you feel you have been the victim of racism either on or off campus it is important to be informed about the relevant policies and laws around racism and discrimination and the groups/organizations on and off campus that can provide support so that you can determine if you want to take action. Taking action is a personal and very difficult decision and it is important to note that there is no right or wrong decision.

York University Resources:

York University’s Anti-Racism Policy

Understanding Racism: A Guide For Students, Faculty & Staff

For more resources on preventing and/or addressing racism contact the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion, or visit yorku.ca/rights.

External Resources:

City of Toronto’s Human Rights Office 416- 392-8383

City of Toronto’s Human Rights and Anti- Harassment/Discrimination Policy

City of Toronto’s Hate Policy

Ontario Human Rights Commission Policy and Guidelines on Racism and Racial Discrimination

Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate

Ontario Human Rights Commission Racial Harassment and Poisoned Work Environments Fact Sheet

Black Lives Matter Toronto

BLAC Legal Action Centre

Legal Aid Clinics

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How to Be an Ally to the Black Community and to Racialized Students

BIPOC cannot address the issue of racism alone. An ally is a person who does not belong to a particular social group, but is actively engaged in advocating for and supporting that group. White students can be allies to racialized students, and students of colour can be allies to each other. An effective ally is someone who understands that racialized students experience and are impacted by racism in their day to day life.

Here are some tips on how to be an ally:

  • Acknowledge that racism exists and that it has an impact on the health and well-being of racialized students
  • Acknowledge your positions of power and privilege and how it may be impacting another racialized student in a given situation
  • Do not discredit or debate the lived experiences of a racialized student
  • Do not silence another student for bringing up the issue of race or deny or minimize the existence or impact of racism; instead listen respectfully and learn!
  • Take a stand against racism when it occurs, name the incident as racism and provide validation to the person experiencing the racism, even if you choose not to get involved
  • Avoid making assumptions or stereotyping racialized students by being aware of and challenging your implicit biases.
  • Take some time to understand your own privilege and biases. You can use the following resources on how to be an ally and other Anti-Racist resources:

Articles on Being an Ally:

What Can I do to Become an Ally To Black People, One Black Woman Answers 

How to be An Anti-Racist Ally

Our Guide to Being an Ally

A Resource Guide For Anti-Racism + Being An Educated Ally For BIPOC

Becoming Trustworthy White Allies

City of Toronto’s Guide to Allyship

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Additional Resources on how to be Anti-Racist:

Harvard University Implicit Bias Test – a tool to discover unconscious bias

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – article on privilege

MTV Look Different

Immaculate Perception - TED talk on Implicit Bias

The Danger of a Single Story - TED talk on implications of dominant narratives

Truth and Reconciliation Commission –Residential school system testimonies.

Responding to Everyday Bigotry: Speak Up – Tips on what you can do in response to racist comments

Moving the Race Conversation Forward – on the need to talk about systemic rather than individual racism

Black Lives Matter Resources

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is an international network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice

Black Feminism & the Movement for Black Lives: Barbara Smith, Reina Gossett, Charlene Carruthers (50:48)

"How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion" | Peggy McIntosh at TEDxTimberlaneSchools (18:26)

Books To Read:

Me And White Supremacy by Layla Saad
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
Six Ways Asian-Americans Can Tackle Anti-Blackness in Their Families by Kim Tran
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

10 Books about Race To Read Instead of Asking a Person of Color to Explain Things https://www.bustle.com/p/10-books-about-race-to-read-instead-of-asking-a-person-of-color-to-explain-things-to-you-8548796

Documentaries, Shows and Films:

Netflix:
13th, Ava DuVernay
American Son, Kenny Leon
See You Yesterday, Stefon Bristol
Dear White People, Justin Simien
When They See Us, Ava DuVernay

Available to Rent:
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr.
Just Mercy, Destin Daniel Cretton
Clemency, Chinonye Chukwu
Selma, Ava DuVernay
The Black Panthers,  Vanguard of the Revolution
I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin

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Further Reading:

Agabaire, Ejiro. 2019. Microaggressions: Black students’ experiences of racism on campus.

Bullen, P. E. (2007). Facing intolerance: Toronto black university students speak on race, racism and in(e)(i)quity (ontario)(Order No. AAINR28113). Available from Sociology Collection. (61774807; 200921940).

C. Susana Caxaj, Shirley Chau & Ilya Parkins (2018) How racialized students navigate campus life in a mid-sized Canadian city: ‘thrown against a white background’ but ‘comfortable enough to laugh’., Race Ethnicity and Education, DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2018.1511528

Carter, Robert T. “Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress.” The Counseling Psychologist 35.1 (2007): 13–105. Web.

Constantine, Madonna. (2007). Racial microaggressions against African American clients in cross-racial counseling relationships. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 54. 1-16. 10.1037/0022-0167.54.1.1.

Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1-5. 

Corbin, Nicola A, William A Smith, and J. Roberto Garcia. “Trapped Between Justified Anger and Being the Strong Black Woman: Black College Women Coping with Racial Battle Fatigue at Historically and Predominantly White Institutions.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies inEducation 31.7 (2018): 626–643. Web.

"Findings on Behavioral Science Detailed by Investigators at University of Tennessee (Racial Microaggressions and Sense of Belonging At a Historically White University)." Psychology & Psychiatry Journal, 31 Aug. 2019, p. 97. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/apps/doc/A597410172/AONE?u=yorku_main&sid=AONE&xid=67167cf3. Accessed 29 Apr. 2020.

Lewis, Jioni & Mendenhall, Ruby & Ojiemwen, Ashley & Thomas, Merin & Riopelle, Cameron & Harwood, Stacy & Huntt, Margaret. (2019). Racial Microaggressions and Sense of Belonging at a Historically White University. American Behavioral Scientist. 10.1177/0002764219859613.

Morales, E. (2014). Intersectional Impact: Black Students and Race, Gender and Class Microaggressions in Higher Education. Race, Gender & Class, 21(3/4), 48–66.

Psychologists find white college students continue to hold prejudicial beliefs. (2017). Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Online).

Study Shows Imposter Syndrome Effect Minority Students

Smith, W. A., Allen, W. R., & Danley, L. L. (2007, December). “Assume the position…You fit the description”: Psychosocial experiences and racial battle fatigue among African American male college students. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(4), 551-578.

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of african american college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1-2), 60-73. Retrieved from

Sue, Derald Wing, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin. 2007. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist 62(4):271–86.

Sue, Derald Wing; Alsaidi, Sarah; Awad, Michael N; Glaeser, Elizabeth; Calle, Cassandra Z; et al. Disarming racial microagressions: microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders.  American Psychologist Vol. 74, Iss. 1, (Jan 2019): 128-142. DOI:10.1037/amp0000296
Tator, Carol, and Frances Henry. “The Struggle for Anti-Racism, Inclusion, and Equity in the Canadian Academy: Representation Is Not Enough.” Our Schools, Our Selves 19.3 (2010): 369–398. Web.

Yosso, T. J., Smith, W. A., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D.,G. (2009). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates.Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659-690,781,785-786. Retrieved from