Ask A Therapist: Self-Care in the Midst of White Supremacy

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

In this article, a reader asked Roy Fisher how to stay afloat in the midst of white supremacy in the United States.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know.* We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

With a white supremacist in the White House, it sometimes feels like people of color are under attack. I am fearful for others in this community and myself. The recent white supremacist shooting in El Paso had taken a toll on my mental health and it had made me question if I can trust white people. What are some strategies for staying afloat emotionally during these times?

Dear Reader,

It is difficult to answer such a complex question in a column. This space can never adequately address the experiences of POC in the United States, but I’m going to give it a shot.

It’s easy to place blame on the current political climate as reason for the increase in race-based violence, but this dynamic existed way before the current president was elected. From Columbus’ “discovery” of a land where people were already living, to chattel slavery, to immigration policies, to Japanese internment camps, to the war on drugs, etc. the United States has a complicated and sordid history with race. In no way am I discounting the pain associated with the events referenced, I just want to draw attention to the fact that this isn’t new. What also isn’t new is that there are many white people hurting too. White people who are in relationships with POC. White people who are raising kids of color. White people who want the United States to be a country we can all be proud of, are also struggling trying to make sense of it all. To be clear, I’m not coming to the rescue of white people (white folks don’t need protecting) — just drawing attention to the fact that history has shown us that while white skin benefits from racism, some white folks recognize their privilege and attempt to leverage their power to make a difference.

But the struggle of POC is unique. White people get to choose when to step into this conversation — most POC don’t have this option. Our ability as POC to survive in this country is a testament to our collective resilience. Unfortunately, this resilience comes at a cost. POC mental health is constantly at risk. It takes a tremendous toll to figure out how to navigate an environment continuously wondering if “you’re next.” If the event you attend will be the next place shot up. If your skin color effectively puts you in the crosshairs of a gun or policy decision. Unfortunately, the complex trauma experienced by POC is not sufficiently addressed by our current mental health standards. While there is an understanding of the impact of traumatic experiences (i.e., physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect) our current mental health system chooses to disregard the lasting impact of race-based trauma. For example, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Addition (DSM V) trauma is defined as: Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways: (1) directly experiencing the traumatic event(s); (2) witnessing, in person the event(s) as it occurred to others; (3) learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend — in cases of actual threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental; (4) experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s); (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeated exposed to details of child abuse). The impact of pervasive racism is not included in this definition of “trauma” therefore it is very difficult for POC to receive adequate support.

So, what are some strategies to remain afloat?

  1. There is tremendous power in seeing oneself as a member of a racial group. We are able to pull from the connection we feel to those who came before us and those who will follow us. This connectedness can be used to define a sense of meaning and purpose. This connectedness must be used to create counter-narratives of our worth to combat negative stories about who we are.
  2. We need to continue to create spaces for conversations about racially based trauma experiences. We must find places where our experiences are named, acknowledged and validated. Since the system isn’t conducive for those conversations, we must make them occur.
  3. Maintaining relationships with white folks is vital too, racism is not a people of color issue, racism impacts all of us.
  4. Lastly, we must find healthy outlets for our fear and rage, left unchecked we are more susceptible to feelings of hopelessness.

I hope there is a life vest in here for you.

— Roy Fisher

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Roy FisherRoy Fisher has a BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a MA from Pacific Lutheran in Marriage and Family Therapy. With over 10 years of experience in various roles as a clinician, consultant, supervisor, and teacher, Roy has seen the positive impact of engaging others in thoughtful dialogue.

Liz Covey

Liz Covey, LMHC, LMT, is a counselor and parent coach with a private practice in South Seattle working in the specialty area of attachment, adoption, and trauma, with children, families and individual adults. She is also a trainer, presenter, and writer on topics related to the changing face of mental healthcare, disseminating ideas and practices aimed at improving mainline therapeutics so that they are more inclusive, holistic, and effective. Liz is a Rainier Beach resident, and the extremely proud parent of two incredible school-aged kids.

*South Seattle Emerald’s Ask A Therapist advice comes from professionals and are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice and are not a substitute for professional mental health care. By submitting your question, you are agreeing to let South Seattle Emerald use it, in part or in full, and it may be edited for length and/or clarity.


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