Race: Speaking the Unspeakable – An article for teens and young adults of color

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By Dr. Janiel Henry
Psychologist (#28724)

Our teacher had just declared it to be recess. Excited to play, I joined my friends and the group of girls in the corner of the play area talking with each other and playing with the toy kitchen. Preschool:  A special time full of exploring the world and enriched with fantasy play and imagination.  “I need every one to come over here” said one of the girls. Eagerly, we all gathered in a circle. “Now, I need everyone to put their hand into the circle next to mine.”  “Hmm… I’ve never heard of this game,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what it’s about.” Not sure whether this was a cool new game or an activity to learn, with great anticipation I put my hand into the circle. As this girl closely examined each of our hands, her next statement greatly confused me: “whoever is darker than me cannot be my friend.” “You’re okay; you’re okay; and you’re okay,” she stated as she touched the hands of other girls. “You”, she said, pointing to my hand, “cannot be my friend.” I was so surprised, but more than anything, full of confusion. I don’t understand. “What does it mean?” I thought to myself. Little did I know at that time the social meaning and significance of race for a girl of color.

As a teen, you may have your own experiences with being a member of your own race that have left you feeling confused, bewildered, hurt, angry, or ashamed. Perhaps as you read my brief story, a memory far forgotten crept into your mind. You are not alone. So often in our society and culture, the topic of race is taboo. When dialogue around race occurs, it can bring significant discomfort.  In the words of Dr. Derald Wing Sue, to “make the invisible, visible” and to speak the unspeakable is the goal of open discussion. While not easy, bringing awareness to the importance of dialogue about race is necessary for society pursuing social justice.  And, it’s necessary for our mental health – as teens and adults.

It can be really tough, depleting, and frustrating to experience and deal with the discrimination and prejudice that marginalized groups often face daily. Throughout my years of working with teens, they’ve shared with me that racial discrimination, prejudice, and systemic oppression are some of the most concerning things they deal with – often every day. It can be both subtle and obvious differential treatment by a teacher, employer, or peer. Other times, it may be exclusion or verbal insults and slights masked in the form of a joke. For other teens it may be damaging labels, systemic invalidation of their worldviews, or overwhelming pressures to conform to or resist stereotypes and controlling images such as the “model minority”, “strong Black woman” or “spicy Latina.” Dealing with all of these stressors can take a significant toll on your mental, physical, and emotional health. That’s why taking care of yourself and learning to cope in a healthy way is so important. Here are a few strategies to help you survive and thrive:

  • Call it out and name it! Sometimes you may wonder if you are really experiencing what you are experiencing. “Did that really just happen?” Don’t be afraid to label it, name it, and acknowledge when discrimination, racism, or prejudice occur. Contrary to some perspectives, we most definitely do not live in a post-racial society. According to bell hooks, a black womanist writer, taking an “oppositional gaze” of acknowledging and understanding the socio-political and systemic reality of oppression is essential.
  • Acknowledge your feelings! Whether it is hurt, pain, anger, frustration, or annoyance, allow yourself to feel it. Name the feeling. Maybe draw or write the feeling. Find healthy ways to share your feelings (see tips on support below).
  • If possible and safe, remove yourself from toxic situations and people! If others do not honor your truth, remind yourself that you are not responsible for educating everyone on your experiences. If those around you cannot treat with you respect, know that you do not have to hang out with them.
  • You can choose your battles! If you’d like to address prejudice and discrimination in the moment, and it is safe to do so, you can. However, if you’d like to let it rest and save that energy for something else, you can do that too.
  • Get support! Tap into your social support system for support and empowerment when you need to, whether that is your friends, a mentor, your parents, a trusted organization such as your church or club, a professional therapist, or your trusted and parent- approved online community. Your support community can be a healthy place to share feelings – and be encouraged in your strengths.
  • Celebrate and honor your racial and ethnic identity! One of the protective factors to harmful stress of race-based discrimination and prejudice is a strong cultural/ethnic identity. Identify, celebrate, and focus on the aspects of your cultural or ethnic heritage you are proud of.
  • Advocate for social justice! You can join an organization or cause that you are passionate about to advocate with others in a big way. Or you can decide on a personal level how you would like to support social justice in small ways (e.g. donating to a cause, promoting a social media platform).
  • Build upon your resilience! You have been through many challenges and difficulties. Although you may get tired, frustrated, angry, and more, know that it is possible for you to survive and thrive in order to continue to be the authentic version of you.
  • Use self-care! Engage in those activities that you enjoy (e.g. listening to music, exploring a new coffee shop, healthy exercise) to de-stress and let the load off. The teenage years can be full of school and relationship stresses. Add racial discrimination and prejudice to the mix and you’ve got a double load. Don’t forget to take care of yourself!