Racial Microaggressions

By: Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych

Within a few minutes of their first conversation, a White individual inquisitively asks a racialized minority a seemingly innocuous question they have likely been asked numerous times previously, “So, where are you from?” Now, imagine the above scenario but with the actors’ roles reversed (i.e., the racialized minority asks the White individual the same question). Which event is more common? Many people who live in Canada and the U.S would intuitively respond that the first scenario is more likely. The reason for this difference requires a contextual understanding of race relations; that is, knowing which social groups are dominant and as a consequence of this, who defines those that are normal from those that deviate from the norm. In our society, both historically and presently, White folks hold a disproportionate amount of power in society to institute and promulgate these definitions. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that as a result, White people receive messages daily which serve to confirm their sense of being normal. Contrarily, racial minorities often receive messages that convey the opposite sentiment. Given these realities, the question, “So, where are you from?” becomes rife with meaning. Indeed, what comes across as innocent curiosity may be read by those receiving it as reinforcement of a sense of un-belonging, especially given the frequency with which this event may occur. Inter-racial interactions between dominant and non-dominant group members are never just an isolated event; instead, they are historically and contextually grounded within the broader social systems that one lives.

The above incident highlights one of many examples of racial microaggressions which are subtle slights, jabs, and insults which convey demeaning messages to racialized minorities by dominant group members. Perpetrators of racial microaggressions are often well-meaning White folks, mostly unaware of the effect of their actions. This manifestation of racism, of course, stands in contradistinction to the overt, consciously directed racism more typical of a bygone era. And though most can agree that a dramatic decrease in “old-fashioned racism” is a good thing, one consequence has been that contemporary racism falls below the radar of most. Indeed, its subtle and insidious nature makes modern-day racism appear virtually non-existent to those who perpetuate it. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that racism is referenced as a problem “over there” or “back then” and as such not given the warranted attention. 

Research on racial microaggressions has exploded in recent years (read Derald Wing Sue as a starting point), and various empirical studies have documented their varied manifestations. Moreover, researchers have documented its adverse psychological and physiological effects. As a starting point, it is critical for clinicians working with clients to be aware of current racial dynamics so that discussions of race and racism are not minimized or ignored in therapy. By ignoring these critical issues, therapists unwittingly disempower their clients by locating the root of mental health issues associated with racism within the individual rather than due to prevailing social forces. Clinicians who convey this message risk perpetuating the very thing that may in part be responsible for their client’s mental health issues.

Internalized Racism

by: Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych.

Throughout life, especially during early life, we internalize messages sent to us by caregivers, siblings, extended family, peers, and larger social and cultural institutions. Growing up, if caregivers are attuned to our emotional needs and respond in a warm and empathic way, we are more likely to internalize, or have an unconscious felt sense, that we are a person worthy of being loved. If, on the other hand, caregivers respond to our emotional bids for affection with rebuke, derision, anger, and so forth, we instead may internalize a felt sense that we are unlovable in some way.

The messages we receive about ourselves from others profoundly impact how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others. 

Messages sent from the cultural and social milieu in which one lives can greatly influence how we feel about our own worth. Growing up in North America where racism is prevalent, for instance, folks of colour are subject to many recurrent and demeaning messages about their racial identities. These messages often are subtle. For example, they may be revealed in television shows and movies where people of colour represented stereotypically and cast in a narrow range of roles. Additionally, these messages are found in schools. For instance, some children who have to pass through security guards checkpoints every morning before class undoubtedly receive the message that they are dangerous and not to be trusted. Unkempt school grounds and poorly supplied classrooms are a consistent reminder to some students that their education is not as important as those who live in more affluent neighborhoods. Consistently receiving these messages takes its toll on an individual; one result may be internalized racism. 

Internalized racism is a phenomenon whereby people of colour constantly exposed to demeaning messages that imply their inherent badness or lower worth may unconsciously start to feel this way about themselves. One of the most disturbing yet illuminating examples of this was the doll experiments conducted by Clark and Clark in the late 1930s/ early 1940s in which they asked children to rank Black and White dolls (everything the same except for their skin colour) on various characteristics. They showed that both Black and White children typically preferred White dolls over Black dolls in terms of appearance, niceness, and so forth. To Clark and Clark, Black children preferring White dolls for these reasons was an example of internalized racism. 

Aside from cultural and social shifts needed to combat internalized racism, a more intimate domain to work through this issue is in therapy. For this to happen, psychologists, psychotherapists, and other helping professionals must be multiculturally-competent practitioners. Indeed, they must be well-versed in psychological and emotional manifestations of discrimination and be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with clients as these issues arise. Ignoring internalized discrimination and placing the locus of responsibility solely within the client risks reinforcing oppressive patterns responsible for internalized racism. Using therapy as a space to explore themes of badness, worthiness, and so on through a culturally sensitive lens can empower clients to gain a better understanding of their pathogenic beliefs and, through deep and meaningful processing of these themes, detoxify these negative feelings about the self.

Immigration – Adaptation Process

by: Dr. Rana Karam, C. Psych.

In our previous blog, we discussed immigration and the concept of “culture shock” which is a common product of immigration. In this blog we will discuss the cultural adaptation process and offer some strategies to help you cope with difficulties stemming from immigration and culture shock.

Adaptation process

  • The first stage, just before or shortly after immigrating, is often described as the “honeymoon” stage. It is filled with high hopes, great expectations, confidence, happiness, fascination and excitement towards the new culture.
  • The second stage, the “culture shock” described in our previous blog on immigration, is a period of destabilization that can last between 3 to 18 months.
  •  During the third stage, often referred to as the “adjustment” stage, stress and anxiety recede. The individual starts to accept their new surroundings, feels more in control of their life and gains a better understanding of their host country.

Coping strategies

Despite the lack of a quick fix to culture shock, it can be very relieving to recognize that it forms part of a “normal” adaptation process to a new culture. Often, the best remedies are time and prolonged contact with the new culture. Consequently, resisting the temptation to withdraw and avoid any painful and stressful contact with the new culture and making a conscious effort to adjust to it are key coping steps. Moreover, stress management strategies, self-care, social support from compatriots, creating new relationships with people from the host culture are also important. The following is a number of more specific suggestions on how to cope with difficulties related to immigration:

  • Acknowledging that these impacts/challenges exist and are not signs of weakness.
  •  Learning the rules of living in the host country (how and why people act the way they do and their behaviours and customs).
  • Getting involved in some aspect of the new culture (study art or music, learn a new sport, volunteer in your community).
  • Taking care of yourself (eat well, exercise and get a good night’s sleep).
  • Sightseeing in your new country.
  • Making friends and developing relationships.
  • Maintaining contact with old friends and family back home.
  • Keeping a journal of feelings, reflections and experiences or sharing them with others to help you sort through them.
  • Doing something that reminds you of home (listen to your favourite music or practice a familiar hobb

Cultural adaptation: a lifetime process! 

In general, the process of adaptation is a slow and lengthy one. It often continues throughout the person’s stay in their new culture. Building a new cultural identity is the product of a personal integration of values from both cultures (new and existing culture). Such integration can aid in forming an integrated identity from the two cultures, absorbing the culture shock and supporting the individual in their exploration of the new culture.

More often than not, cultural interactions enrich our life and enable us to identify and better appreciate some aspects of our own culture.

Psychologists and psychotherapists at CFIR can help you navigate through such challenges and cope with the various intercultural difficulties and struggles that may come your way. 

Read more about our Multicultural Treatment Service.

Immigration – Process and Impact

by: Dr. Rana Karam, C. Psych.

Welcome to our blog on immigration! In this blog, we will discuss the immigration process and its impact on the immigrant. In our next blog, we will discuss the adaptation process and offer strategies for coping with the various challenges of immigration.

Starting a new job, going to a new school, moving to another city are common experiences that resemble immigrating to another country. The individual leaves a familiar milieu and dives into a new and unknown environment. This, inevitably, implies a period of adaptation. Such a period can be filled with excitement and hope for success and growth but it can also bring stress and anxiety. Most notably, for people who are changing countries, these difficulties are amplified because the difference between the familiar and the unknown environment is greater. 

What are the underlying experiences of migration? Migration means departing from (emigrating) the people, places, sounds, and scents upon which ones internal and external world was built. Migration also means arriving in a new country (immigrating) and rebuilding, in a short period of time, ones life. Immigrating entails recreating for oneself essential and basic things that were once established in their native country. For instance, rebuilding a work environment, forging new relationships, establishing a new home, and the like.

The experience of immigration is unique to each person and varies according to ones personal history, the reason for, and context of, immigration (whether it was voluntary or an obligation, temporary or permanent, etc.). However, some challenges and impacts are common to that experience.

In general, immigration leads to a period of disorganization that varies in length for each individual. For example, struggling with contradicting desires is very common. Two distinct types of desire are usually manifested, these are: 

  • The desire to blend in with others in order not to feel different or ostracized; and
  • The desire to distinguish oneself from others in order to remain the same person as before immigrating.

In general, this period of disorganization is sometimes referred to as “Culture shock”.

The concept of culture shock describes a common reaction to a new culture and is one of the phases of the adaptation process to that culture. It is a period of stress, anxiety, tension, nervousness as well as sadness, confusion, surprise, disgust, rejection, and helplessness vis-à-vis the host society.

During this stage, one may undergo a broad range of experiences and behaviours such as:

  • Feeling angry, uncomfortable, disappointed, confused, frustrated or irritable;
  • Eating and drinking compulsively or needing excessive sleep;
  • Having difficulty going to work or looking for a job;
  • Avoiding contact with people from the host country and spending time alone or only with people from ones own culture;
  • Having negative feelings about the people and the culture of the host country;
  • Focusing on the differences between oneself and people from the host country;
  • Missing ones family and feeling no connection to the host country; or
  • Feeling guilty about leaving family members behind.

The reaction to a new culture is a “shock” primarily because of massive and unexpected changes in ones life and overwhelming exposure to new things. Moreover, exposure to cultural differences can lead a person to question their cultural values. Culture shock is also caused by the anxiety provoked by the loss of our cultural references and familiar symbols in social interactions (e.g., whether to shake hands, hug, or kiss when meeting someone; when and how to tip a service provider; gift exchange; dress codes and customs). Other contributing factors to culture shock include language barriers, experiences of discrimination (prejudice and racism from the host culture), getting recognition for ones education, and qualifications in the host country.

Psychologists and psychotherapists at CFIR can support you and your family members to better cope with these immigration-related difficulties. 

Read more about our Multicultural Treatment Service.

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