I have a clear memory of my AP U.S. History class the day after the election of President Barack Obama. After some back and forth about what this all meant to us, a pretty diverse group of students, my teacher asked: “What underrepresented group is going to sit in the Oval Office next?”
A student eagerly replied, “An Asian person, duh.”
Playing devil’s advocate, my teacher made a case for women or the high number of Hispanic/Latinos in the country who might be ready for their turn.
The same student’s response will be forever ingrained in my memory: “Yeah, but Mexicans aren’t that smart.”
My friends in the class immediately looked at me with mixed expressions of shock and sympathy. Our teacher shut down the comment immediately and moved the conversation back to history. Everyone settled back into the groove of the discussion — but for me, the weight of that comment lingered long after.
This was not the first nor the last time I encountered discrimination. Many times, I could count on a friend to step in, or a teacher to say that such comments were not tolerated in their classroom. But even when I had people in my corner attempting to shield me from such words or to offer comfort in their aftermath, I struggled to deal with what these comments did to me, my well-being, my view of self, and my view of others.
If you have ever found yourself in a similar situation — whether discrimination, prejudice, profiling, or other variations of racial injustice — I want you to know that you are not alone. There are ways to work through these experiences. Though they impact us and stay with us, we do have hope to heal from them.
Here are some steps I have taken that have helped me process, understand, pray, and move beyond these situations:
Process Your Experience
The thing that I have found most helpful after events like this is to begin by acknowledging how I feel. Am I hurt, offended, angry, numb, or confused? Taking a moment to name my emotions helps me to digest the experience. Although it sounds strange to say, this gives a sense of freedom because I don’t have to try to excuse the other person’s behavior nor attempt to justify it — I simply have to accept what took place through my perspective and how it impacted me.
Once I do that, I am able to remind myself that instances of racial discrimination are in no way acceptable nor should they ever happen. Just because it did occur does not mean I need to embrace it as some unavoidable fact of life. It hurt me because it was wrong. I can affirm within myself that the words, attitudes, and actions that demonstrate racial prejudice should never be normalized.
A final element of processing is telling my story. Sometimes I’ve shared with someone who witnessed it all go down, but it can be just as beneficial to share to anyone who will listen compassionately. This might be your parent, an older sibling, a friend, youth minister, Core member, teacher, or school counselor. There is a lot of power allowing someone to carry the burden of how you feel with you.
Understand Your Inculpability
Once I have gotten a gauge of where I personally stand after processing what happened, I can begin to acknowledge that the racially motivated actions of the offender were not my fault. I had no control over how they think or how they chose to speak to me. Nothing you do or say forces others to speak in such a racially charged and hurtful manner.
Most perpetrators of racial discrimination or injustice are products of a culture that has conditioned them to think in certain ways. They have never been shown the problems of racism and the systems that allow it to continue. They have not been confronted by their privilege, their attitudes, their dispositions, or how these internal biases affect those around them. This is not meant in any way to excuse what they did or said, but it does free us from any need to try to understand why they did it. The bottom line is that it’s not you — a fact that is crucial to reconciling our feelings about the situation and begin the process of healing from it.
Turn to the Lord in Prayer
As a Catholic, the most important part of any sort of moving beyond racial discrimination has been letting God love me in spite of, and even through, it. I have had to recognize the fact that He sees me in my hurt, not just as a victim, but as His beloved daughter.
The rejection, shame, anger, and pain that come with racial discrimination are enough to cloud any and all glimmers of hope. It is difficult to feel loved after such hatred is shown. It is difficult to feel seen when treated so ignorantly. But the Lord has a final word of deliverance for us.
“Other” is not your identity. “Foreign” is not your identity. God the Father sees you totally, race and all, even when a store employee at the register might not. Jesus gave Himself up for your sake because you matter to Him, even when you don’t to a classmate or coworker. You are not foreign to Him. You are His.
Any time I have been victim to a hurtful comment or action because of my race, I have just had to move on with my day. There has been a test to study for, a project to complete, work to be done — all requiring me to perform at my full capability. Moving forward was due to the grueling pace of life, not to any real healing.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In order to move forward from an experience of racial discrimination, the processing and understanding periods are foundational. The prayer aspects are vital. These won’t always happen in that order, and sometimes they needed weeks, months, or years after the experience. That’s OK. The important thing is to not let those situations go by unchecked and to feel free to go through this process as many times as needed.
Here’s what I want you to know, my friend: you are not defined by the ignorance or hatred of others. You are good. You are important. And you are so infinitely and relentlessly loved… Keep on.