How can the positive psychology concept of empathy aid and gain support for BIPOC individuals who have endured racial trauma?
Racism is a systematic oppression based on the perceived value of a person because of their skin color. Racism creates social hierarchies which guarantee that one population is valued and heard more than others. In the United States, white people benefit from racist systems. In systemic oppression, there are rules and laws that protect white people and laws that discriminate and endanger people of color. Everyone in the United States is affected by it- some benefit from it, some are aware of it, and some are having their rights stripped away every day. Racial inequity is shown, today, in the lack of protection, violence, and hatred toward minority groups. On May 25, 2020, 46 year old George Floyd was pulled over after a convenience store worker told police that he’d bought a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. The officers took a series of actions that violated the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department and turned fatal. Derek Chauvin placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck, leaving Floyd unable to breathe as he was calling out to onlookers for help and eventually, murdering him. This is not the only case of police brutality toward people of color, more commonly black people, that has happened in even recent years. Although these actions go against the policies of police departments, many police continuously abuse their positions of power to racially profile and oppress people of color. Furthermore, in March, a 21 year old white man named Robert Aaron Long shot a total of 8 people in 3 spas. 6 of his victims were Asian women. Long confessed to the shootings, and many have speculated that he chose to terrorize nail spas to target Asian women. The group Stop AAPI Hate has recorded 3, 795 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, with women victimized twice as much as men. Neither of these two incidents are isolated incidents. This hatred is extremely common in the United States; however, even upon watching these horrid incidents go viral across the country, governmental authority only does so much as offer condolences rather than taking a step in the direction of systematic change. These charts prove that racism is still a significant problem in America and show the way that Black Americans experience different treatment than white Americans.
Another part of racism is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the interconnection of social categorizations or parts of someone’s identity such as race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. which creates overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage. Kimberlé Crenshaw-a lawyer, social justice advocate, philosopher, and professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, where she specializes in race and gender issues- coined the critical race theory as intersectionality. Her TEDTalk below entails the urgency of acknowledging intersectionality.
5 MAIN CONTRIBUTORS TOWARD RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
So, while we’ve seen examples of racism in the form of hate crimes, as well as in our economy and justice system, it should not surprise us that racism exists in schools as well. Racism can creep into areas that are supposed to be safe spaces for people of color in the following ways:
Graphic by Laya Venkat
1. Failure to Recognize Privilege
A big part of contributing to racial discrimination is a failure to recognize privilege. A lack of acknowledgement that someone has significant advantages over someone else invalidates the experiences of a person with less privilege. Some basic examples of privilege are white privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege, heterosexual privilege, religious privilege, and class privilege. Types of privilege are not limited to just that list. Someone cannot help if they have privilege; however, it is up to them to recognize it and use it for good. In some other circumstances, regarding racial privilege, white people who are part of other minority groups will use that lack of privilege to cancel out their white privilege. Racial privilege is unique in such a way that people can (mostly) hide other kinds of identities, but they cannot hide their skin color. If you are white, regardless of what other minority groups you fit into, you are white first.
Tokenism is the practice of making only a symbolic effort to accomplish something, especially by recruiting a small number of an underrepresented group just to give the appearance of diversity. Tokenism is a huge issue in many schools. An anonymous Latina woman from my high school stated, “They put pictures of us on every banner but fail to talk about our issues.” This quote reflects the feelings of a lot of people of color at many high schools. Tokenism is an issue because BIPOC are used to make schools and organizations look better, but those institutions do not actually care about the issues of BIPOC.
Graphic by Laya Venkat
3. Performative Activism
Performative activism refers to activism done to increase one’s social reputation rather than actually help a cause. An anonymous black woman from my high school quotes, “Social media has been great for social justice movements because it has allowed people to spread awareness for certain issues like Black Lives Matter, but it’s also been a little bit detrimental because it turns these types of movements into trends and people start acting to be on trend, not because they actually care.” I would argue that performative activism is one of the biggest contributors to racial discrimination at schools. An anonymous South Asian woman from my high school quotes, “When I started to see people from school posting about ending racism, I was so ready to have those conversations, but then, those same people who had been posting would shut me down and make it really clear that they didn’t care about the issue.” Performative activism hurts BIPOC because, rather than finding allies that they could trust to listen to them and lift up their voices, they are met with hypocritical actions. Performative activism also isn’t a new idea- many people seem to believe that it stemmed from social media movements. While in the present day, social media does have a lot to do with it, we see proof of performative activism during the Civil Rights Movement. In Malcolm X’s Ballot or Bullet speech, he states, “And the white liberals who have been posing as our friends have failed us.”
An anonymous Latina woman from my high school says, “I remember that people would say that I only got this opportunity because of my ethnicity, and I just remember feeling so shocked.” An anonymous Asian American woman from my high school states, “The microaggression that I hear most, which is really common for Asian Americans to hear is, ‘Where are you really from?’ and it just always made me feel like I don’t belong even though I was from the same place as the person who was asking me that question 99% of the time.”
5. Racial Gaslighting
Racial gaslighting is part of a systemic, historic process of racism that has been used by the police and government organizations to both illegally target BIPOC and deny complicity in racial profiling. Similarly, the authoritative structure of society directly translates into schools, so the use of racial gaslighting in conversations among students is common. An anonymous black woman at my high school says, “White people would try to tell me what I can and can’t be offended by when it’s really not their place.” An anonymous Asian American woman at my school says, “People would tell me that I bring race into everything when I shouldn’t be and things like that, even when I knew that I was bringing up relevant points. I feel like they just didn’t want to acknowledge my points so they tried to invalidate my whole argument.” An anonymous South Asian woman from my high school describes, “Being a person of color as well as perceived as a woman has allowed other people to take validity away from my statements before I even say them due to the ‘Angry WOC’ stereotype. People assume that my conversation points will be angry and emotional and subconsciously dismiss them instead of hearing me out.”
Graphic by Laya Venkat
An anonymous black woman from my high school quotes, “People say things like ‘if you had said it nicer or calmer, maybe people would’ve listened to you.’ Black people have dealt with oppression in America for centuries up until present day. I’m not going to suppress my emotions for the sake of white people. Black people have been doing that for so long just so they didn’t get killed. Also, whether a black person says something calmly or aggressively, they aren’t listened to either way.” Racial gaslighting enables white people to disregard and invalidate the voices of BIPOC. It is extremely harmful for BIPOC, whose voices have been restrained for so long. BIPOC should have the freedom to speak up about issues that disproportionately affect their marginalized identity. To tell a BIPOC that their opinion isn’t valued when they are speaking on their own experiences is an ignorance that blocks progression.
Graphic by Laya Venkat
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RACIAL TRAUMA
Of all the BIPOC students that I interviewed, not a single one of them could answer “yes” to the following question: Have you ever received any resources to help you cope with the racial discrimination that you’ve endured? This was not surprising. The United States focuses on Eurocentric experiences, which do not compare to that of BIPOC. As a result, the trauma caused by racial discrimination is heavily overlooked. Racial trauma is the ongoing result of racism, racial bias, and exposure to racial abuse in the media. Racial trauma can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including their ability to engage in relationships, concentrate on school or work, and feel safe. Discrimination is a traumatic experience that causes similar symptoms to PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Direct or indirect (witnessing discrimination) exposure to discrimination can cause racial trauma. Blaming the victim or refusing to believe this trauma exists will only intensify the trauma. Some of the causes of racial trauma include exposure to racial or ethnic stereotypes, fears about personal safety, witnessing members of a person’s group receiving abuse, racial abuse of loved ones, direct exposure to racial abuse or discrimination, and others not taking experiences of racism seriously. Psychologically, the symptoms of racial trauma mirror those of PTSD. This includes distress relating to the trauma and re-experiencing distressing events, chronic stress, avoiding things that remind the person of the trauma, feeling distracted by memories of the trauma, negative thoughts about oneself and other people and the world, increased sensitivity and reactivity, and intense anxiety or depression relating to the trauma. Black and Latinx middle school students have higher rates of depression in the context of discrimination. In addition to symptoms of PTSD, racial trauma can have other symptoms, including dissociation- the feeling of a person being numb or disconnected from themselves- and weathering- the chronic health effects of exposure to racial discrimination and trauma which cause and prolonged trauma and poor mental health. The negative effects of racial trauma also affect physical health outcomes. These symptoms are often exacerbated due to a lack of accessibility to proper medical care for BIPOC as a result of systemic racism. These symptoms include cardiovascular disease, hypertension, spikes in blood pressure, respiratory complications, higher allostatic load, and digestive issues. In a sample of black college students at predominantly white schools, experiences of racial discrimination were associated with significant increases in sleeping difficulties. According to the American Psychological Association, the psychology behind racial trauma is that it is mainly caused by stressors. Direct traumatic stressors include all direct traumatic impacts of living in a society of structural racism and being on the receiving end of racial abuse. A person experiencing a direct traumatic stressor may be the victim of individual physical and verbal attacks or may face other microaggressions. Next, vicarious traumatic stressors are the indirect impacts of living in a systemically racist society. Vicarious stressors can have an equally detrimental impact on BIPOC as direct stressors. For example, viewing videos of brutal police killings of black people, such as the video associated with the murder of George Floyd, can cause traumatic stress reactions in the people who view them- especially in black people. Two-thirds of Latinx youth that immigrate to the United States report experiencing at least one traumatic event, the most commonly reported during and post migration being witnessing a violent event or physical assault. Many Native American children are vicariously traumatized by the high rates of societal homicide, suicide, and unintentional injury experienced in their communities. Transmitted traumatic stressors refers to those that are transferred from one generation to the next. One example of transmitted traumatic stressors is the enslavement of black people, which serves as a traumatic stressor for black people today and makes them more vulnerable to developing mental health disorders. Another example of transmitted stressors are the descendants of Holocaust survivors, who are more vulnerable to experiences of psychological distress related to Holocaust losses. Lastly, the historical trauma of Native Americans in which they were violently removed from their native land causes most Native Americans today to experience mental health disorders.
Graphic by Laya Venkat
CONNECTING THE PSYCHOLOGY OF EMPATHY TO RACE
Empathy is the psychology concept that I chose to focus on when coming up with responses to aid the group I’ve identified. Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another. According to Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, “Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it.” Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam has found that observing another person’s pain can trigger parts of the same neural networks responsible for that pain. To further explore this “mirroring” technique of empathy, Keysers conducted a study in which he asked participants to watch a video of a person grabbing toy balls that were hidden in a bin. Participants determined whether the person in the video hesitated before reaching inside the bin or not. This proved that the mirror system contributed to the participants’ ability to predict the confidence of others. It also proved that the feeling of empathy enables people to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Furthermore, described by Ying-yi Hong from the Association for Psychological Science, while our brains allow us to feel empathy, it can also stop us from making cross-cultural connections. Hong quotes, “Despite all these neurobiological capabilities enabling us to empathize with others, we still see cases in which individuals chose to harm others, for example during intergroup conflicts or wars.” This may be because of the brain’s distinction between members from within their own group and without their own group. The amygdala has greater activation when viewing fearful faces of their own race, and less activation when someone views fear in someone who is not their own race. Hong and her colleagues did a study in which they mixed cultural symbols; for example, combining the American and Chinese flags or putting Mao Zedong’s head on the Lincoln Memorial. The results elicited patterns of disgust in the anterior insula of white Americans’ brains, similar to the disgust elicited by insects. This indicates that there is a significant empathy gap in the United States.
Graphic by Laya Venkat
Call To Action & Closing
Now, viewers of my project, I’d like to CALL ON YOU to take these tangible next steps and make an impact! Below are 4 sites of numerous resources for social justice movements. Each website has a master list of every situation pertaining to that movement. Please take the time to look through each one and educate yourselves. Next, make at least one contribution- this could be by signing a petition, making a donation, calling an institution, etc.
Lastly, please leave me a response on this survey entailing what you learned from my project, what contribution to a social justice movement you made, and any feedback you have about my project or ideas for my plan.
Finally, here are my works cited. As always, thank you so much for viewing and engaging in my project!