I was getting my morning cup of coffee, and while waiting to pay I saw others hand their money to the clerk and leave. When I attempted to do the same, another clerk rudely stated to me that she was helping someone. So I waited in line, watching others who came in after me be served before me. As I walked back to my office, a wave of emotions ran through me. Initially I was fuming. Why should I have to wait when others didn’t? Is it because I’m black? Was she being discriminatory? I thought to myself.
This is a place that I frequent with regularity, even going out of my way to get my coffee there because the staff is usually very friendly. So I began to doubt myself. The clerk who was rude was a different clerk than the one who took the people’s money. Was she a new employee? Did she not know that she could just take my money? Or maybe she was just having a bad day? My mind was racing with questions.
There I was, vacillating between anger and doubt and confusion from a seemingly simple interaction. This swirl of emotions is par for the course when you’re a minority or part of an oppressed group. We encounter these thoughts and questions and anxieties and doubts about the meaning or intent of others’ actions on a regular basis.
This is not to say others are always being racist/sexist/heterosexist/fill-in-the-blank. On the contrary, many times they aren’t. But this process of questioning and wondering is what we go through on a daily basis. We have to feel, review, and process these little interactions all the time, and it is an incredible weight to carry.
“Samantha,” who works at a law firm, is often asked if she’s bringing a date to social functions. Initially her coworkers asked her occasionally, but now it seems like multiple people, including her boss, are hounding her every time there’s a function. She isn’t out as a lesbian at work and wonders why her colleagues keep asking her about her private life. Are they trying to find out if she’s gay? If they do find out, will she lose her job? Or do they just want to know her personally? Samantha doesn’t know, but the thoughts and questions are a constant presence for her.
Whenever you are part of a minority that regularly interacts with the majority, there are additional layers of thought and emotional processing that occurs. There is so much unconscious and invisible energy that goes toward deciphering the intent and motives of others. And then there are our own emotions while we consider what, if any, action to take. As we consider our options, we also consider any possible consequences or retribution. If Samantha brings a female date to the next happy hour, will people treat her differently? Will work become uncomfortable and unpleasant? Will it affect her boss’ perception and perhaps review of her? All of this requires a significant amount of emotional and even physical energy that can be exhausting.
So what can you do about it? As overwhelming as this is, there are ways to move through it. The first step is to acknowledge the burdens that you carry. Acknowledge that there are times when being a woman or gay or Muslim or Latino (or part of any minority group) is challenging. Acknowledge that being part of a minority means constantly attempting to discern people and situations that are discriminating against you from those who are not. There are times when it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine, while at other times it can be crystal clear. Acknowledge that this continuous questioning in your mind exists.
The next important step is to manage and cope with these emotions and experiences. Find friends and family members to talk to. Determine who will be supportive and understanding of you and your experiences and talk with them. Writing is another excellent way to cope with your emotions. It allows you to express your emotions without holding them inside and gives you a much-needed release. Exercise is another great coping mechanism. It is a physical way to expel your anger, sadness, and frustration. Go for a run, speed walk around the block, or do push-ups in your office to release the emotions.
Letting go is the final and most important step. This is an acquired skill and something that takes practice. Acknowledging and coping with the challenges are useful in managing your day-to-day life. But the ability to let go of the pain, anger, and confusion allows to you be more joyful and not hold onto the painful experiences that may occur throughout your day. Some people use prayer or meditation to let go. Others can let go after they exercise and feel the release in their body. Talking to someone who understands and has similar experiences helps me to let go. I also find that practicing gratitude and appreciation for what is good in my life helps me to let go.
What works for you? How do you manage the thoughts, emotions, and anxieties that come from being a minority?
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