Protests against the violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others are emboldening and expanding the movement to fight racism. But to make progress, many of us may need to adjust our thinking — and our actions. We talked to several African American and Hispanic psychologists and leaders for strategies to fight racism.
You know that old adage: “Don’t talk about race and politics at the dinner table. Well, we’ve got to get out of that,” says Polly Gipson, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan.
And while many African Americans have the talk with their kids about how to avoid altercations with the police or what to say if they are stopped, it’s important for white parents to talk to their kids about racism too.
“Yes. It’s uncomfortable,” Gipson says. “But we can’t avoid things that are uncomfortable — because this is part of the problem of why we’re not as far along as we should be,” in eliminating racial injustices. And the more people who join the conversation, the better.
“A lot of people of color are tired. We’re tired of being the unseen and misunderstood,” says Inger E Burnett-Zeigler, a psychologist and associate professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She’d like to see more voices at the table.
“I think it’s important for everyone, regardless of race, to ask, ‘What is my role in this system?’ ” she says. Ask yourself, ‘Have I been a passive bystander, and how can I change that?’
“Perhaps it’s simply speaking up in situations where you may have been disinclined to speak up before,” Burnett-Zeigler says.
These tragic events of recent weeks can also create an opportunity, because people are fired up. Given all the anger and frustration, experts say there are strategies to channel these emotions into action.
1. Listen To People Closest To You, And To People Of Other Races
Whether it’s your work colleagues, teammates, your children or extended family, one way to change hearts and minds is to listen. When we stop talking and start listening, we validate others’ feelings and emotions. And, we may find opportunities to educate.
For instance, “People will say, my kids don’t see color, and kind of wear that as a badge of honor,” says psychologist Gipson. But if a white person says this to a black person, it can be offensive. And, though it may be well-intended, the idea that people are colorblind is false.
“All kids, even infants, discern differences in race,” Gipson says. “It also invalidates people of color who have a ‘lived experience’ that is not like their white counterparts,” she explains. People don’t want important parts of their identity to be erased, they want to be recognized and respected for the entirety of their person.
2. Use Your Voice In Your Community And Work Place
We don’t all have the audience that sports figures have when they speak out against racism, but we all have a voice.
For instance, millions of people signed a petition posted by Color of Change, one of the nation’s leading racial justice organizations, demanding charges against the officers involved in the death of George Floyd.
At the local level, identify a policy that disproportionately affects people of color. Pick an issue in your community — whether it’s access to healthy food, school boundaries, or bail reform.
Rian Finney, 17, grew up hearing gunshots from his bedroom window, and he witnessed the aftermath of the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015.
“If I don’t speak up and do something, who will?” Finney asks.
He’s now involved with several youth organizations, including GoodKids MadCity and Baltimore Ceasefire, which recruits youth ambassadors to help raise awareness of gun violence. It has always been young people who push the civil rights movement forward, Finney points out.
And for adults, “look at your specific position and reflect on what power you might have to shift change to promote diversity and equity,” Burnett-Zeigler says. If you’re a manager, have you promoted or hired people of color? If you’re a teacher, have you incorporated messages of racial diversity and civil rights into your curriculum?
3. Give Your Time
If you’ve thought about signing up to be a tutor or mentor, now’s the time to do it.
“Tutoring is a great example, mentoring is a great example,” Burnett-Zeigler says. “These are ways you can use your personal influence in private ways for good.”
If you’re looking for a way to get started, check out the many national civil rights organizations — or find a local, grass-roots group, says Janet Murguia, president and CEO of UnidosUS, a group that aims to empower Latinos to make change.
For instance, Race Forward offers interactive racial justice training courses and classes. And she points to the race and healing collaborative supported by the Kellogg Foundation, which sponsors an annual National Day of Racial Healing event.
4. Speak Up By Using Your Creative Talents
“There are so many ways young people can use their talent and gifts,” says Gipson. On social media, we see examples of artists, from painters to jewelry makers, selling their wares and giving proceeds to an organization pushing for change.
“I love that idea,” says Wizdom Powell, a psychologist and associate professor who directs the Health Disparities Institute at the University of Connecticut.
“The idea here is to leverage your gifts and leverage your privilege, because we all have some of that,” Powell says. She points to an art competition that her institute organizes around visualizing health disparities. Art can play a role in healing and activism for health equity and social justice, she says.
“The arts have long been a vital and important way to process emotions, especially difficult ones, into something tangible,” says Jeremy Nobel, a physician who founded the Foundation for Art and Healing. “Expressive artifacts that make sense of the moment, bear witness and catalyze change.”
In times of distress, people can use art to access and communicate difficult thoughts and feelings, especially ones that are hard to talk about,” Nobel says. “[Art] offers a unique and powerful way to speak up, be heard, and be witnessed.”
5. Self-Care Is Important
For people who are reeling from the recent spate of deaths and racial trauma, it can feel overwhelming, says GiShawn Mance, a psychologist at Howard University. She says, she feels it personally.
She leads healing circles, which can help people connect and grieve. She also facilitates restorative justice circles — which aim to bring people who are trying to settle a conflict together.
But Mance says, in recent days she’s needed to take some time for herself. “It’s been hard to concentrate on work,” she says. In addition to the national unrest and the COVID-19 epidemic, which has hit communities of color the hardest, she is pregnant and a close friend recently died. “It’s a lot, and there have been tears,” she says.
This is a traumatic and stressful time especially for African Americans and people of color. “People put a lot of pressure on themselves to act or do something in this moment,” Mance says. So, her advice is this: “The fight for equity and justice is an ongoing effort; thus, do not put pressure on yourself to act or do something in this moment.” And she says, “I’m particularly talking to people of color and black people who are experiencing this.”
“It is difficult to help others when you are not OK,” she says. So, though self-care strategies will vary, take care of yourself and your mental health first, she says. Then “you can move forward in action to help others.”