When people believe that you and every one of your social category is inferior, it can be challenging to maintain a positive outlook. You may have been the victim of a hate crime or another act of discrimination based on your race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, income, or even country of birth. Acts of bias include but are not limited to being denied access to housing, employment, legal protection, and school admission, being called derogatory names, being physically assaulted, being ignored or rejected, being profiled and unjustly prosecuted, and being consistently depicted in a negative light in the media. Oppression, such as racism and sexism are ugly realities that can chip away at your self esteem.
People are affected in different ways by negative stereotypes and discrimination. When it happens to you, you may experience depression, anger, shock, emptiness, or shame. Sometimes to cope with what has happened, you may deny it. It can even affect our relationships and who we trust. Some people will try to separate themselves from the group that is marginalized and this may mean being an African American who doesn’t like to spend time with other African Americans or being a woman who openly declares, “I don’t like dealing with women.” This type of internalized oppression is very damaging. On the other hand, some people who have experienced oppression respond by only spending time with members of their group as a way of trying to prevent future incidents from occurring. This can also be damaging in that you end up having to limit what you can do and where you can go. It also can result in intense stress when in the presence of those who are different than you.
Many of us have experienced some form of bias, negative stereotyping, or discrimination. It is so important to consider ways to take care of yourself so that you minimize the potential negative consequences of these violations. Here are a few pointers:
1. Be intentional about recognizing and celebrating the positive aspects about you both as an individual and as a member of a social group. You never want to define yourself from the perspective of those who fear or hate you. You want to invest in seeing the beauty and strength of being who you are.
2. When discrimination, hassles, put-downs, and disrespect occur, don’t ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen. Denial is not helpful. It can lead to shame, self-blame, and even physical signs of stress such as migraines or high blood pressure. Acknowledge it to yourself and then you can decide if there is a safe, constructive way for you to address it. This may mean speaking to the person directly, filing a complaint, building coalition with supportive allies, leaving the environment, working to raise awareness, or even pressing charges. Face the truth that the incident happened and then determine which option is best for you.
3. Create safe relationships where you can talk about the difficult and sometimes horrific things you have witnessed or experienced. Discrimination can be very painful and you shouldn’t have to carry that pain alone. You need people in your life you can talk with about it that won’t try to dismiss it or blame you for it.
4. Develop friendships with people of diverse backgrounds, including both members of your social group and other groups. It is not healthy to either run from who you are or to run from every social situation in which you are not in the majority. Spending positive, quality time with a diverse group of friends can improve your view of yourself, your ability to trust, and your view of others.
5. Make sure you choose positive coping strategies over destructive ones. When you have been put down, make sure you don’t seek comfort through cigarettes, alcohol, other drugs, over-eating, or (verbal or physical) violence. Instead cope with your feelings through constructive means like talking about it, using the arts, engaging in community organizing, reading inspirational books, and participating in activities that nurture your spirit.
6. A final tool of empowerment is choosing to actively work to end bias and discrimination. Getting active in your community, school, workplace, or city can be a great way of resisting oppression. You can also start on a personal level by speaking up when those who are close to you speak and behave in discriminatory ways. Each of us has the power to make a positive difference. Speak up and shatter the silence around oppression. Together we can turn things around.