Merriam Webster defines racism as, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Racism is a pervasive problem in our society that has been aimed at marginalized people, specifically people of color, with the intention of denigrating and hurting them. Racism, though a belief, can be presented in behavior such as verbal abuse, physical attacks and even well-intentioned ignorant comments regarding someone’s race. In a long term process racism can affect the psyche and emotions of the victim of the attacks.
Racism is usually thought of as a physical attack or a racial slur. However, racism can take many forms. There is the micro-aggression which happens when a person makes an ignorant/ stereotyped comment about someone else’s race. It may not be intentional but it has the same impact as an overt act of violence. There is institutionalized racism which happens when private and government agencies only hire specific people for a job. For example, there are companies that actively only hire undocumented immigrants so that they can pay them less than minimum wage. And because the undocumented immigrants can’t go to the police for this injustice they are locked in that situation. This type of racism is also seen at colleges and universities where white students are qualified higher than their peers of color even though they have the same, and sometimes better, qualifications. This type of racism is also seen when specific racial minorities are targeted by police officers for misdemeanors.
For people of color, experiencing high levels of stress is one of the more prevalent mental health issues. Having to actively go through their day and be faced with situations, news, people and places where they do not feel welcomed or attack them can cause high amounts of tension and preoccupation. Long terms effects of internalized stress can cause heart problems, hypertension, depression, PTSD, and other diseases. As Dr. Monica Williams states in Racism’s Psychological Toll, “race-based stress reactions can be triggered by events that are experienced vicariously, or externally, through a third party — like social media or national news events.”
Racism, at its worst, is when it is internalized by the person of color. This entails that person of color starts believing that they are inferior (as well as other negative stereotypes are true). This can lead to low self-esteem, a skewed sense of self, depression, violence, trauma, a strong sense of rage/anger, among other negative effects. Many may think that internalized racism may be a result of lack of character or that it can be cured with positive thoughts, however it is rooted in a much deeper place than just the psyche. In her article How Racism Affects Mental Health — & What We Can Do About It, Sarah Jacoby interviews a therapist that talks about the importance of psychotherapy and how it can be helpful for people of color.
Mental health is not solely thoughts and feelings. Mental health is anything and everything that comprises the environment of a person and how that environment impacts a person. Though mental disorders come from chemical imbalances and genet traits, it can be exacerbated or even cause (in the case of trauma) by outside sources. Having to experience a constant hostile environment that overtly and covertly work to make you feel inadequate, unwelcome and broken will eventually have severe side effects. Thus, when we speak about mental health we must also focus on social, cultural and environmental factors such as racism. Veronica Womack explores this theme further in her article A Movement Against Racism Should Be a Movement for Mental Health.
We need to start moving towards a more holistic mental health approach. Staying informed, creating support and getting help is important in these trying times. Please refer to Mentalhealth.gov for mental health resources near you.