Beyond Protests: 5 More Ways To Channel Anger Into Action To Fight Racism

Jun 7, 2020
Originally published on June 8, 2020 7:58 am

Protests against the violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others are emboldening and expanding the movement to fight racism. But to make progress, many of us may need to adjust our thinking — and our actions. We talked to several African American and Hispanic psychologists and leaders for strategies to fight racism.

You know that old adage: "Don't talk about race and politics at the dinner table. Well, we've got to get out of that," says Polly Gipson, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan.

And while many African Americans have the talk with their kids about how to avoid altercations with the police or what to say if they are stopped, it's important for white parents to talk to their kids about racism too.

"Yes. It's uncomfortable," Gipson says. "But we can't avoid things that are uncomfortable — because this is part of the problem of why we're not as far along as we should be," in eliminating racial injustices. And the more people who join the conversation, the better.

"A lot of people of color are tired. We're tired of being the unseen and misunderstood," says Inger E Burnett-Zeigler, a psychologist and associate professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She'd like to see more voices at the table.

"I think it's important for everyone, regardless of race, to ask, 'What is my role in this system?' " she says. Ask yourself, 'Have I been a passive bystander, and how can I change that?'

"Perhaps it's simply speaking up in situations where you may have been disinclined to speak up before," Burnett-Zeigler says.

These tragic events of recent weeks can also create an opportunity, because people are fired up. Given all the anger and frustration, experts say there are strategies to channel these emotions into action.

1. Listen To People Closest To You, And To People Of Other Races

Whether it's your work colleagues, teammates, your children or extended family, one way to change hearts and minds is to listen. When we stop talking and start listening, we validate others' feelings and emotions. And, we may find opportunities to educate.

For instance, "People will say, my kids don't see color, and kind of wear that as a badge of honor," says psychologist Gipson. But if a white person says this to a black person, it can be offensive. And, though it may be well-intended, the idea that people are colorblind is false.

"All kids, even infants, discern differences in race," Gipson says. "It also invalidates people of color who have a 'lived experience' that is not like their white counterparts," she explains. People don't want important parts of their identity to be erased, they want to be recognized and respected for the entirety of their person.

2. Use Your Voice In Your Community And Work Place

We don't all have the audience that sports figures have when they speak out against racism, but we all have a voice.

For instance, millions of people signed a petition posted by Color of Change, one of the nation's leading racial justice organizations, demanding charges against the officers involved in the death of George Floyd.

At the local level, identify a policy that disproportionately affects people of color. Pick an issue in your community — whether it's access to healthy food, school boundaries, or bail reform.

Rian Finney, 17, grew up hearing gunshots from his bedroom window, and he witnessed the aftermath of the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015.

"If I don't speak up and do something, who will?" Finney asks.

He's now involved with several youth organizations, including GoodKids MadCity and Baltimore Ceasefire, which recruits youth ambassadors to help raise awareness of gun violence. It has always been young people who push the civil rights movement forward, Finney points out.

And for adults, "look at your specific position and reflect on what power you might have to shift change to promote diversity and equity," Burnett-Zeigler says. If you're a manager, have you promoted or hired people of color? If you're a teacher, have you incorporated messages of racial diversity and civil rights into your curriculum?

3. Give Your Time

If you've thought about signing up to be a tutor or mentor, now's the time to do it.

"Tutoring is a great example, mentoring is a great example," Burnett-Zeigler says. "These are ways you can use your personal influence in private ways for good."

If you're looking for a way to get started, check out the many national civil rights organizations -- or find a local, grass-roots group, says Janet Murguia, president and CEO of UnidosUS, a group that aims to empower Latinos to make change.

"We've partnered with organizations like Color of Change, National Urban League, Black Lives Matter and Race Forward, [which] are all doing incredible work in this space," Murguia says.

For instance, Race Forward offers interactive racial justice training courses and classes. And she points to the race and healing collaborative supported by the Kellogg Foundation, which sponsors an annual National Day of Racial Healing event.

4. Speak Up By Using Your Creative Talents

"There are so many ways young people can use their talent and gifts," says Gipson. On social media, we see examples of artists, from painters to jewelry makers, selling their wares and giving proceeds to an organization pushing for change.

"I love that idea," says Wizdom Powell, a psychologist and associate professor who directs the Health Disparities Institute at the University of Connecticut.

"The idea here is to leverage your gifts and leverage your privilege, because we all have some of that," Powell says. She points to an art competition that her institute organizes around visualizing health disparities. Art can play a role in healing and activism for health equity and social justice, she says.

Andre Rochester created Next In Line following the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — two African American men shot by police in 2016. Rochester uses his art to raise money for positive solutions to create change.
Andre Rochester

"The arts have long been a vital and important way to process emotions, especially difficult ones, into something tangible," says Jeremy Nobel, a physician who founded the Foundation for Art and Healing. "Expressive artifacts that make sense of the moment, bear witness and catalyze change."

In times of distress, people can use art to access and communicate difficult thoughts and feelings, especially ones that are hard to talk about," Nobel says. "[Art] offers a unique and powerful way to speak up, be heard, and be witnessed."

5. Self-Care Is Important

For people who are reeling from the recent spate of deaths and racial trauma, it can feel overwhelming, says GiShawn Mance, a psychologist at Howard University. She says, she feels it personally.

She leads healing circles, which can help people connect and grieve. She also facilitates restorative justice circles — which aim to bring people who are trying to settle a conflict together.

But Mance says, in recent days she's needed to take some time for herself. "It's been hard to concentrate on work," she says. In addition to the national unrest and the COVID-19 epidemic, which has hit communities of color the hardest, she is pregnant and a close friend recently died. "It's a lot, and there have been tears," she says.

This is a traumatic and stressful time especially for African Americans and people of color. "People put a lot of pressure on themselves to act or do something in this moment," Mance says. So, her advice is this: "The fight for equity and justice is an ongoing effort; thus, do not put pressure on yourself to act or do something in this moment." And she says, "I'm particularly talking to people of color and black people who are experiencing this."

"It is difficult to help others when you are not OK," she says. So, though self-care strategies will vary, take care of yourself and your mental health first, she says. Then "you can move forward in action to help others."

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As demonstrations continued across the country this weekend, some states saw a rise in COVID-19 cases. New data points to spikes in states including Florida, California, Arkansas and Arizona.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about the numbers and also some strategies for engaging while avoiding crowds. Allison, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So what can you tell us about the rise in cases?

AUBREY: Well, if you look nationwide, the picture is mixed. Nationally, there's been a decline in new cases in recent weeks. That's because some places hardest hit are doing better, such as New York and New Jersey. But what officials are concerned about is the spike in cases over the last few days in states including Florida, North Carolina, Texas - the Houston area, for instance. And if you look at the timing, these cases are probably linked to what people were doing, you know, back Memorial Day weekend and when businesses started reopening.

MARTIN: Huh. So even though we have seen the photos - perhaps people have been participating themselves in these massive protests over the last week or so against racial injustice and over George Floyd, the increases in COVID that you're talking about are not linked to those?

AUBREY: No. Remember there's a significant lag time. So this could be coming. There have been isolated cases of protesters who have tested positive. For instance, an Oklahoma State football player who attended a protest in Tulsa said he tested positive. A county commissioner in Athens, Ga., tested positive. She helped lead a march. And officials in Atlanta and other cities have offered free testing for protesters - encouraging it given the concern because it's clear that conditions are ripe for outbreaks when people gather in close quarters like this.

MARTIN: So given the risks, some people may not want to protest in person. I understand you've been talking with civil rights advocates and others about alternatives. What are they saying?

AUBREY: One strategy to start with is to listen. You know, we spend a lot of time talking at each other, talking only to people like us in our own circles. But if you listen to the messages coming from many of the protests this weekend, the notion that kept coming up was that we need a lot more direct dialogue about race. I spoke to Polly Gipson. She's a licensed clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan.

POLLY GIPSON: That old adage of like, you know, at dinner, don't talk about race and politics. Well, we got to get out of that. You know, we - this is what you got to talk about. Yes, it's uncomfortable. But we can't avoid things that are uncomfortable because this is part of the problem of why, you know, we're not as far along as we should be.

AUBREY: And it's important for parents to talk to their children about racism as we've heard several times already this morning.

MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely. So more listening, more talking - and then what?

AUBREY: Well, more people need to take action. I mean, that's what all the civil rights advocates, social workers, psychologists I've spoken to have told me, including Inger Burnett-Zeigler. She's a psychologist at Northwestern University.

INGER BURNETT-ZEIGLER: A lot of people of color are tired. We're tired of being unseen and misunderstood. And particularly in a time like this where there's this shock, it can be overwhelming and frustrating and exhausting. And so I think it's really important for everyone, regardless of race, to think about - what is my role in this system? What have I done? Have I been a passive bystander? Have I been someone who has thought that racism doesn't exist anymore?

AUBREY: She says look around your own workplace, your own community. And ask, you know, what can you do? What can I do? If you're a manager, are you promoting a diverse workforce? If you're a teacher, does your curriculum promote diversity? She says we all have a role.

MARTIN: What about social media, Allison? I mean, a lot of people choose to make their voice heard by posting a hashtag in this moment. What do the experts that you've talked to - what do they say about the effectiveness of that?

AUBREY: Social media is one way to have your voice heard. But beyond posting messages, there could be more impactful strategies. Burnett-Zeigler says there are lots of ways of helping, you know, kind of one-on-one.

BURNETT-ZEIGLER: Tutoring is a great example. I think mentorship is a great example. I think the donating money to other organizations that are doing work around racial justice is also a great example. The way that we - you vote I think is another example of ways that you can use your personal influence in private ways for good.

AUBREY: And even if you're not old enough to vote, teens can get involved in, you know, letter-writing campaigns, volunteering.

MARTIN: So talking to teens and college students, given the continued threat from COVID, many are home. Right? Not...


MARTIN: ...As busy as a normal summer by any stretch of the imagination.

AUBREY: Right.

MARTIN: Any specific ideas for them?

AUBREY: One way is to turn to the arts, to use creative talents. I spoke to a young woman making jewelry, giving proceeds to a civil rights organization. One of our colleagues' daughters is singing in online concerts and donating the money she raises. So you know, turning to art can not only help you process emotions, especially difficult ones, it's also a way to speak up, to be heard, to be witnessed. Here's Polly Gipson again.

GIPSON: There are so many powerful ways that young people can use their talents and their gifts to shine the light on this issue because, you know, not only does this work require a commitment and values, it also requires some passion. And if they can express that passion through arts, craft, there are so many powerful, you know, dance choreographers, spoken word, musicians, poets. I think that's an excellent way.

AUBREY: And there's a fair amount of research to support the idea that the arts can be healing.

MARTIN: This has just been a traumatic week...


MARTIN: ...Or more at this point for the country, for so many people, especially - obviously - people of color who are bearing the emotional weight of this...


MARTIN: ...As always in these conversations. What coping mechanisms have you uncovered through these conversations?

AUBREY: You know, all of the people I spoke to - I spoke to a lot of African American women, and they all pointed to this. GiShawn Mance is a clinical psychologist at Howard University. She says the recent events have felt overwhelming. So she says, you know, sometimes it's important to hit the pause button and take some time to take care of yourself.

GISHAWN MANCE: Right now it's a lot. It's heavy. And there's been tears. And so recognizing that there are so many different ways to navigate what we are experiencing and there's no right or wrong - and making sure that you take care of yourselves is really important so that you can be healthy so that you could move forward to help others. And I'm particularly talking to people of color and black people who are experiencing this.

AUBREY: And she says when you're feeling ready, then you can jump in.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.