In this Talk, actor Thandie Newton tells the story of finding her “otherness.” First as a child growing up in two distinct cultures and then as an actor playing with many different selves. She talks a great deal about focusing on our essence instead of our ethnicities or the “self-images” we construct, which is an important message in and of itself. I couldn’t help associating her “many selves” with the many masks that we as black people wear in order to navigate American life.
Topics like these invariably cause me to reflect on the cost of racism. The cost is sky-high when you think of the waste of human potential. It’s devastating when you think of the emotional toll on a people, who then have to parent and maintain relationships. But the cost that concerns me most is the cost to our personal development and our growth as individuals. Because if you have to be so many things in order to survive a culture, if you have to wear so many masks, it’s easy to forget who you are and to get distracted from your purpose.
Racism and the masks we wear to survive
I have no stats to back it up but I do believe the vast majority of black Americans have been emotionally impacted by racism. Even those who are asymptotic are scarred by it. These masks we’re forced to wear take a silent emotional toll.
It leads to low self-esteem, self-hatred, and creates all sorts of fears and inner conflicts. You can’t just look for a job with your degree in hand, sharp wit, and brilliant mind. No, if you are black, those things are never enough in any corporate setting to get you a job. You must put the hiring manager at ease that you don’t have a damages relationships. In our home, behind closed doors is where people rip off their masks and show someone (usually the people they love) the pain they’ve been bottling up. That can come out in any number of ways—alcohol and substance abuse, anger, abandonment, and even physical abuse.
What can black Americans do about racism?
Most black ex-pats in Europe, the Caribbean, and other places would never move back to the United States. I can’t blame them and myself advocating a move for purely practical reasons: the change of environment can offer faster healing.
I can’t see how it’s not traumatic to stay in the same place where you’ve been oppressed. That’s like asking a wife to stay at home with her abusive husband because one of them can’t afford to move out.
All that said, I know it’s not a practical solution. Leaving your home country is not the same as leaving your home. It’s a huge thing to give up your country. Getting visas and documentation can be difficult and unless you have a job in another country waiting for you, moving doesn’t make economic sense.
So, with so few practical solutions available and since we cannot count on our government on this, we have to consider what we ourselves can do while we live here.
These are some of the things I think might make a difference.
1. Create safe spaces
We need to create safe spaces to express our anger and frustrations. If we knew how many others feel the way we do, we’d feel less shame and other toxic emotions we’ve absorbed.
2. Have creative outlets
Acting and dance gave Thandie outlets through which she could disappear and simply be. She found she could disappear into the roles she played and when dancing, felt the sacred within her. In the Talk, she spoke about feeling free and unoccupied with her otherness in those moments.
This is an excellent tip! I recommend having an ===ind something you can do regularly that you would disappear into.
3. Build stronger communities
Racism batters the soul and if you’re experiencing it in silence, life will be that much harder. Forming communities and support groups work for all types of trauma, including racism. In groups, you can openly discuss the effects of race, learn how others are coping, and find support.
I don’t know what stronger communities could look like but I will say that I’m often troubled by how many middle-class blacks try to distance themselves from the problems of racism. It’s as if, they don’t want to risk what they’ve achieved by supporting or identifying with the larger black community. I hope these middle-class black Americans would find the courage to speak out, share their experiences with their white friends and don’t hold on so tightly to positions in corporate spaces that require them to be silent.
4. Build strong families
When your home life is good, the toxicity of the outside world doesn’t have the same punch. For black families, it’s more imperative that we learn to communicate well and have patience with each other.
Black families in particular need to be more present for the important moments in the lives of our loved ones, especially our kids. We need to make sure family members feel supported and heard. Because when we feel loved at home, the isms of the outside world won’t sting as much.
5. Turn to psychotherapy and counseling
Racism takes away your choices and no matter who you are, that can stir up a lot of anger. We’re a community that has long shunned counseling but I encourage black women to rethink therapy. We really it. We need help processing the anger.
I personally love sitting down and emptying my mind and having someone else help me look over its contents. It’s such a huge help that I think most people would benefit from, but especially black women. The strong silent beings we’ve been raised to be is hurting us. Rethink it.
6. Practice mindfulness and meditation
Daily meditation lets us do a centering before we go out into the world, and is a tool I recommend for almost every challenge. It makes us less reactive and helps us see the world from a detached non- judgmental perspective. Our internal dialoguing is calmer and more peaceful.
7. Practice Radical Self-acceptance
Thandie gives a deeply personal account of her journey to self-acceptance. It’s another takeaway we can all benefit from
Given how pervasive and destructive racism is, I hope that those of you who struggle with it, are trying to find healthy ways to process it, live full lives, and find ways to work on our personal development.
Christine is a Life Strategist and Emotional Health Coach living in Los Angeles. She's big on meditation and believes in systems and routines, and in personalizing everything you do to help you get where you want to be.