In moments of racial strife, sometimes the chasm between individuals seems wide and uncrossable. Here are some ways to build resilience.
Are you finding recent overlapping pressures a lot to manage? The pandemic, broad societal recognition of the need to address racial equity, the degree to which racial trauma and race-related stress affects you, the recent political discord . . .
It is a lot to manage.
As a clinical psychologist, my professional focus is on addressing issues of social justice, power, oppression, and their impact on folks, both individually and systemically. Those ideas are always at the heart of my sessions with individuals, my group trainings, my teaching and writing, and even as a music artist.
I brought that approach to the Northwest Area Foundation in July 2020, when I was hired for one-on-one work with staff members who were managing a higher intensity of challenges during the pandemic and the social unrest following the death of George Floyd.
In the midst of those intense external pressures, staff were more at risk of experiencing potential burnout and being triggered (or retriggered) by racial trauma. And some were navigating secondary trauma or compassion fatigue through working closely with communities in crisis.
Perhaps you’re experiencing similar pressures right now? Wherever you are, whatever challenges you’re facing, I hope these reflections will help you navigate your professional and personal journeys.
“Staff were more at risk of experiencing potential burnout and being triggered (or retriggered) by racial trauma. And some were navigating secondary trauma or compassion fatigue. . . . Perhaps you’re experiencing similar pressures right now?”
Dr. Rahul Sharma
We all need a brave space to confront our assumptions.
The Foundation’s three-year and ongoing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) journey laid the foundation (forgive the pun) for bringing in a consultant with a multicultural approach.
In my consulting work, I’m often initially called upon to do a training session. However, 99 times out of 100, people need more than a single training to address the deeply rooted complexities of their own unexamined or underexamined biases.
There are very few spaces where people can name and deal with their own racism and sexism, for example. None of us is immune. We all have to investigate our own problematic assumptions—our own “stuff” that perpetuates inequities.
My aim is to create spaces, whether in group dialogue during a training or one-on-one, where we can start to unpack our baggage. Only then can we transform that baggage into more self-awareness, accountability, and most importantly, more consciously just and equitable action.
Moving forward isn’t always comfortable.
Examining our own biases may cause tension, either within oneself or within a group. That can feel scary, like something to avoid. But if we have the tools to deal with that tension, we have a tremendous potential for growth. Mental health clinicians like to say “it’s all grist for the mill,” which means even something scary or adverse creates an opportunity to process.
In a therapeutic space, a musical space, or in a group dialogue, amazing things can happen if we set the stage in the right way. With courage, conviction, and a competent plan, the most intense conflict can transform into something positive.
It requires people staying in the grind. Everyone needs to be invested—especially those who may feel they have the option to not deal with this. Nothing is more maddening in DEI work than when folks with privilege just walk away when they’re feeling the heat.
To illustrate, Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, remarks that white people need to develop more racial stamina: i.e., the ability to get more comfortable being uncomfortable by doing work on what it means to be white and how this manifests in our various spheres of influence.
“Amazing things can happen if we set the stage in the right way. With courage, conviction, and a competent plan, the most intense conflict can transform into something positive.”
How do we share the load as we work toward equity?
With sexism, for example, women are often expected to do the emotional “heavy lifting” by calling out unequal treatment and barriers. But, actually, it needs to be men’s work, too.
Men first need to recognize the spectrum of attitudes, behaviors, and policies that create sexism. Then we need to find ways to be actively engaged in changing them. We haven’t been shouldering our share of the load.
It’s absolutely possible to achieve equity, but it requires a fundamental shift. Folks who have privilege need to be part of the change—without taking over, without patronizing, without needing to prove that we’re one of the good ones.
Folks with privilege simply need to share in the unburdening, recognizing that by doing nothing, we’re actively contributing to these imbalances. Staying passive places a major toll (emotional, physical, and existential) on coworkers, constituents, and partners who are more acutely affected by systemic inequities.
“Folks who have privilege need to be part of the change—without taking over, without patronizing, without needing to prove that we’re one of the good ones. . . . [And also] recognizing that by doing nothing, we’re actively contributing to [equity] imbalances.”
Achieving equity is more doable with a nice cup of CHAI.
I like to tease participants in my workshops with the promise of chai, accompanied by a beautiful image of aromatic spices surrounding a steaming cup of brown beauty.
Participants are sometimes a little disappointed when they realize I don’t mean the delicious, spiced drink. It’s an acronym I developed for the ingredients necessary to work toward multicultural competence and change. I share this C.H.A.I. “recipe” with all my clients, and now I’m passing it along to you:
In her book The Candymakers, children’s author Wendy Mass writes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” That mantra for compassion most certainly applies to issues of power and privilege. What battles do we know nothing about, and how do we lean in with compassionate curiosity? Doing that may first require self-focused compassion. We need compassion for the conflicting parts of ourselves—for example, a part of us that spikes with shame when thinking about how racism is embedded within us—before we can truly listen to and connect with others.
Humility is another way we can work to understand experiences that differ from our own. A line in Beyoncé’s 2020 musical film and visual album, Black Is King, is a beautiful example of humility: “The same thing I’m asking of you, I’m asking of myself.” To practice humility is to be as invested in calling yourself out as you are in taking someone else to task. Humility hinges on these questions: What are the limits of my knowledge? How can I listen for understanding? What does my own continued growth look like?
Accountability is humility in action—taking responsibility for our words and our work. It’s about holding ourselves to account when we say something offensive or when we participate in a policy that is problematic (e.g., racist, sexist, xenophobic, or transphobic). Accountability is at the center of the work required to move toward equity. Accountability isn’t about defending our intentions. Rather it asks what impact our words or actions have on others, and how we can acknowledge and work with that.
Here’s the counterbalance. It’s nice to be compassionate. It’s nice to be humble. It’s important to hold ourselves accountable. But if we’re experiencing bias or we see others experience it—which we will because we’re all embedded in often unjust and inequitable societal systems—we need to be insistent about speaking up. That’s the first step to addressing, disrupting, or dismantling the problem. This last ingredient, to me, is what makes our compassion, humility, and accountability effective at a systemic level. If we stop short of insisting, unfair systems remain unchanged.
When the elements of CHAI are in harmony, it becomes an unstoppable package. If we’re really compassionate, humble, and accountable, we can also afford to be insistent. Insistence is a key form of allyship—standing up for other people, standing up for ourselves, and being assertive when needed.
While these concepts aren’t specific directives, they promote vital self-reflection. Do I need more compassion in this situation? Should I be more insistent in pointing out this issue?
Change can happen, if we set our hearts and minds to it.
I’m optimistic about the potential for change.
When I began my journey of supporting social justice, I was working as an undergrad at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan. I began learning the tools to facilitate difficult dialogues, a practice that remains an important part of my work.
Even back then I was captivated by the transformation that can take place—in the hearts and minds of individuals, and in policy and institutional change—when the ingredients are set for addressing challenging topics.
Growth and change must be fueled by compassion. And they must be tethered to openness, honesty, humility, and accountability. With courage, inequitable systems can be reworked so they work for everyone.
At a fundamental level, wellness seems to be best achieved by people who connect to a pro-social cause bigger than themselves. So, working toward change that promotes the greater good is at once a service to others and a form of self-care.
“You take your car to the shop when it needs service. When do you need to go to the shop?”
Self-care is not selfish.
Nobody’s escaping the repercussions of COVID-19. Some of us are ill. Some of us are grieving. Some of us are experiencing anxiety levels that are through the roof. We’re all having to flex unfamiliar muscles. And that means we need to put some extra attention into self-care.
When someone expresses resistance to getting a massage or doing something relaxing, one of my colleagues in our band, Funkadesi (see sidebar), likes to say, “You take your car to the shop when it needs service. When do you need to go to the shop?”
Like car maintenance, self-care is a way to keep ourselves operating efficiently. If we’re not paying attention to the signs of burnout, for example, we might spend ten hours doing unproductive work. And what does that serve?
Right now it can feel like we’re under siege, so we just need to do the best we can in terms of emphasizing self-care. We need to be our own laboratory scientists. We need to observe what works for us.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Find the activity that helps us step back from the stress—whether it’s reading, hiking, biking, working a puzzle, whatever. Just know that we need and deserve a great deal of self-care.
And just a reminder: taking care of ourselves is the first step in taking care of others. It’s how we can maintain the bandwidth to keep working toward a just, equitable, and safe world for everyone.
Dr. Sharma is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, musician, educator, and consultant based in the Chicago area, where he has taught and practiced since 1993.
Dr. Sharma is also a bass guitarist and sitarist. He founded the award-winning, intercultural music group Funkadesi, which recently celebrated its 24th anniversary. The band’s ten diverse members include Indian American, African American, Jamaican, Latino, and European American musicians—who are also activists, educators, and healers. Together they use music as a vehicle to advance emotional intelligence, leadership, and cultural competence.
“I’ve learned so much from the band about relationships, diversity, leadership, and healing,” he says.
“Before the pandemic, the band’s four drummers and I would lead participatory drum workshops focused on DEI. We’d break the group into four different rooms, teaching each group a different cultural rhythm. Then we’d reconvene in the main room and talk, in pairs or in small groups, about how that experience connects to what we’re learning about.”
Dr. Sharma sees his psychology, consulting, and music practices as interconnected and mutually nourishing. “What keeps me going is seeing the tangible results from my work—as a therapist, a coach, a trainer, speaker, and even as a musician. That’s energizing and hopeful.”
“Every time I play with the band,” he says, “it feels like a cleansing. We’re sharing that experience with the audience. We’re trying to live up to our motto: One family, many children . . . insisting we all belong.”