Navigating White Supremacist Harassment Online

Date:

Key Takeaways

  • Online racial harassment was experienced by 1 in 2 Black adolescents during the study period.
  • Chronic exposure to online white supremacist harassment may exacerbate racial disparities in healthcare.
  • Additional resources should be developed to help individuals cope with online white supremacist harassment.

The negative effects that white supremacy have on mental health are well documented but in order to combat these harms, it’s important to know where racist acts are taking place. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that Black youth experienced more racial harassment online compared to their white counterparts.

According to the Brookings Institution, racial minorities face different types of cyberbullying, and experience less empathy from others, which results in less bystander intervention when they are harassed online.

Given the mental health impacts of online racial harassment on BIPOC individuals, more efforts are needed to dismantle white supremacy.

The Toll Online Racism Takes

This study was based on 18,454 daily reports from youth across the US between March and November 2020, a time of greater racial tensions.

Findings indicate that Black youth navigated increased racial discrimination online, which predicted poorer mental health among Black youth that day and the next, but not among white youth.

Researchers note that this study was conducted during increased protests after Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s murders, which may have contributed to more feelings of powerlessness among Black youth.

Although white youth reported some incidents of racial harassment, researchers note that the limited impact this had on their mental health following discrimination may be related to the group’s disproportionate power and wealth in society, which may help them feel less threatened.

BIPOC Communities Continue to Cope

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc., psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “We are at a very polarized place at this time. Too many people are moved to communicate online what’s hurtful wherein race can be the most common denominator.”

Dr. Pratt explains, “When a person communicates something hateful online, they may not understand the damage of their words. You can have someone receiving such a message who has just been managing to hold on and those hurtful words can push them over the edge.”

If people are impacted by racist abuse online, Dr. Pratt recommends mental health support.

“I tell parents that this sort of abuse is out there and to remain very aware of their kids’ online activities including who they are engaging with and what sort of sites they are going to,” he says.

“BIPOC communities have dealt with online racist abuse very much like how they have dealt with this abuse, in person, in the past. These varied responses include ignoring such abuse, engaging abusers positively, or lashing out in return.”

These coping strategies have existed since before the widespread use of the internet, and continue into the age of online interactions, according to Dr. Pratt.

“A unique option the internet can offer is to block abusers using some of the filtering functionalities on social media,” he says.

Howard Pratt, DO

[Racism] is passed down, primarily from our families. We get certain opinions about particular groups, and many times, there is no basis for this.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Racism is taught, and Dr. Pratt notes that it can come from insecurities.

“It is passed down, primarily from our families. We get certain opinions about particular groups, and many times, there is no basis for this,” he says.

Dr. Pratt explains, “When I treat kids who are experiencing these pressures, it can be particularly hard to deal with for them if they are living in an environment that is saturated with people with negative opinions or beliefs about other racial and cultural groups.”

When someone accepts something negative about another race as fact, or even about their own race because their grandparents or parents express that belief, Dr. Pratt notes how this can affect their self-esteem.

Dr. Pratt highlights, “Ultimately, there is not a lot we can do personally to change the minds of others who express these negative beliefs about racial and cultural groups and get them to be kinder to each other.”

Change Takes More Than Awareness

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified art therapist, and the clinical director of Guidance Teletherapy, says, “The research shows that even with the rise of information available about BIPOC community members experiencing racism, instead of a decline, the ratio of persons who experience it daily is climbing.”

Landrum explains, “The assumption that awareness alone would be enough to prevent and diminish racism is disproven by this study. When it comes to change, the stages of change theory show us that awareness of a problem is simply the first stage. The first step is to share our stories and increase awareness among the general population.”

The next step is addressing ambivalence to change, or the lack of desire to participate in directly addressing racism and systemic structures that perpetuate it.

Landrum highlights, “We must be mindful that online discussions are public and words are impactful. Comments may affect the mental health of anyone online, as it is a vulnerable space to be in.”

Adolescents are highly impressionable, as Landrum notes they are still molding their identities.

“They are going through a growing period that focuses on emulating life and developing an authentic self,” she says.

“They do not have the life experience to compartmentalize different aspects of their life, so one small comment can linger for a long time in their mind, leaving an imprint on their sense of self, that can last for a lifetime.”

More than ever, it is easy to research counselors and mental health support groups that focus on the struggles of marginalized groups, according to Landrum.

“Many potential clients can even tailor their search to find professionals that match their background, and who have lived experience with oppression, racism, colorism, and prejudice,” she says.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

When increasing support for my clients virtually, I always remind them of the controls provided on these platforms. I remind them that digital spaces are within their control and attempt to empower them to craft those spaces to be the safest for them that they can.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Landrum highlights, “Employers are even providing healing circles for their employees who identify with a specific marginalized group. There is access to bystander training and bias training to help us learn how to become stronger allies and advocates.”

Online platforms provide some protective factors, as Landrum gives examples like blocking, reporting harassment, unfollowing, muting, or using settings that control what types of information are seen and shared.

Landrum explains, “When increasing support for my clients virtually, I always remind them of the controls provided on these platforms. I remind them that digital spaces are within their control and attempt to empower them to craft those spaces to be the safest for them that they can.”

There is a broad spectrum of how different people deal with online racism, according to Landrum.

“Many people choose to be more private with their posts and what they decide to make public online,” she says.

“Some people decide to stand up and defend their position and their friends by calling out racist comments and bigots online. Many others choose to be proactive and create safe spaces for different BIPOC groups so they can be more comfortable.”

Now that people can curate their feeds and ensure that they are not exposing themselves to people who might disagree with their beliefs, Landrum notes that one can avoid situations where they are targeted.

“Personally, if someone has entered my safe space and is attempting harm, I respond. If I can create dialogue that could change their mind or make them more aware of their actions, I will do so. If it unravels, I will block the individual. I will not, however, delete the comment, as the goal is to preserve the history of their actions,” she says.

By acknowledging that such action comes from some privilege, Landrum notes she has supportive friends, family, access to mental health care, and a secure sense of self.

“I also am white-passing, so the amount of racism I experience is far less than my Filipino peers,” she says.

Online Racial Harassment Weaponizes Anonymity

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, “Members of the BIPOC community continue to be harmed by racism.”

“Online racism impacts the BIPOC community at the same level that all sources of racism impact them. In fact, online racism might have increased risk factors because the offender is invisible,” she says.

Online harassment may be exacerbated by how platforms ban certain language that is important to the BIPOC community, while allowing blatant hate speech, according to Weaver.

“Be intentional online by spending your time in spaces that reflect your values,” she recommends.

“BIPOC folx have coped with online racism by creating safe spaces for themselves, such as Black Therapists Rock, Clinicians of Color, Black Girls in Social Work, and BIPOC Bariatric Providers.”

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

The significance of gathering together and sharing energy, whether it’s at a church or healing circles, can create those safe spaces where we can receive food for the mind, and be seen and heard.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

These groups were formed so that non-white providers could discuss therapy through a cultural lens, according to Weaver.

“These groups were designed to be a safe haven for BIPOC therapists to receive affirmation and validation for their beauty, brilliance, and talent in their work,” she says.

Weaver explains, “Unbutu is an African philosophy that recognizes humanity, as it says, ‘I am because you are.’ An African proverb also says ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.'”

There are longstanding traditions of communal healing in the BIPOC community, according to Weaver.

“From the times of enslavement, we became physically distanced from those who shared our DNA; however, we are socially connected to those who share our culture,” she says.

“The significance of gathering together and sharing energy, whether it’s at a church or healing circles, can create those safe spaces where we can receive food for the mind, and be seen and heard.”

Online Racism Impacts Emotional Wellbeing

Associate dean of academic success at Walden University, and licensed clinical psychologist with experience in African American health disparities and institutional racism, chronic diseases in the Black community, ethnocultural differences, and social determinants of health, Brian Ragsdale, MA, PhD, says, “Discrimination and racism happen in the online environment just as it does in face-to-face society.”

“The experience of online racism may be more harmful than in-person, because there may not be a witness to support a person who experiences hate, stress, or racial trauma on the internet,” he says.

Some individuals utilize social media to promote racial hatred, according to Ragsdale.

“Parts of the online world bolster bigotry and prejudice. The mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, in which the Black community was targeted, is a recent example,” he says.

Ragsdale highlights, “Online racism has the potential to have a multiplicative effect because several people could be viewing the same disturbing image or message simultaneously. Emotional well-being is connected to feelings of affirmation, care, trust, and respect for other people, and online racism can impact all those feelings.”

Brian Ragsdale, MA, PhD

Developing a strong social support network with friends and family members who cope with racism is important to learn about their coping strategies. Knowing that you are not alone is crucial.

— Brian Ragsdale, MA, PhD

Talking to a trusted adult, physician, teacher, counselor, or community member may help to lessen the stressful feelings connected to online racism, as Ragsdale notes that discussing how online racism contributed to your feelings is an important step in the process.

“Developing a strong social support network with friends and family members who cope with racism is important because you can learn about their coping strategies. Knowing that you are not alone is crucial,” he says.

A notable coping strategy is seeing BIPOC people surround themselves with joyful experiences like listening to music, going for walks, looking at water, reading poetry, and other experiences that foster warmth and connection, according to Ragsdale.

“Knowing that others cope with online racism might help in lessening the painful sting of it,” he says.

Ragsdale highlights, “Finding positive stories online about BIPOC people and joining groups that affirm our accomplishments can also be beneficial for coping with online racism.”

White Supremacy Must Be Dismantled

Trained psychologist and racial trauma expert, Wizdom Powell, PhD, MPH, Chief Social Impact and Diversity Officer at Headspace Health, says, “The findings are consistent with the 2020 American Psychological Association ‘Stress in America’ report and affirm that the mental health of Black youth can be compromised by online racial discrimination.”

Powell explains, “Online racism can have negative impacts on mental and emotional well-being. Clinicians are woefully unprepared to diagnose and treat mental health conditions stemming from exposure to racism.”

Studies are just beginning to scratch the surface on understanding the impact of racism, according to Powell.

“Online racism can be just as potent as racism experienced directly, face-to-face.” she says.

“It can increase risk for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic symptoms in BIPOC communities, especially among youth. In addition to increasing the risk for anxiety, depression, and substance use, it also can impact an individual’s ability to self-regulate.”

One of the indicators of online racism among BIPOC individuals is erratic behavior, according to Powell.

“We’ve also seen in studies that online racism can limit one’s belief that they can change their circumstances—creating a feeling of helplessness and feeling stuck,” she says.

She explains, “Despite a growing comfort with discussing mental health publicly, BIPOC individuals grapple with mental health stigma that can make it harder to seek help. The first step is to acknowledge the hurt produced by racism—individually, interpersonally, and structurally.”

Often, BIPOC individuals can feel tremendous pressure to push through these experiences with racism, according to Powell.

“Pushing through these experiences often leads to cumulative emotional wear-and-tear and more serious mental health challenges.”

“Since racism produces a kind of collective wounding, the most helpful support comes from beloved, trustworthy communities,” she says.

As an example, Powell recommends emotional emancipation circles, i.e. “community-defined self-help support groups to help heal and end the trauma caused by racism,” as established by the Community Healing Network, in partnership with the Association of Black Psychologists.

Wizdom Powell, PhD, MPH

We should acknowledge that youth and adolescents will not hope and cope their way out of racism. They deserve dignifying mental health support and services that rise up to meet them at their highest intentions for radical healing.

— Wizdom Powell, PhD, MPH

Powell explains, “Mindfulness and meditation delivered via digital health tools hold promise for addressing racism. It can assist individuals with moment-to-moment awareness, loving kindness, and healthy self-regulation—all factors associated with improved mental health.”

It is important to know when you or the youth in your life may be in need of more intensive support, according to Powell.

“Seeking the guidance of a therapist, pastoral counselor, or other mental health provider is not only recommended, but highly encouraged,” she says.

“It is important to note that BIPOC individuals are resilient—often coping with racism (online and in their physical environment) daily. Perhaps we should spend more time assessing why it is that some adolescents who are exposed to online racism go on to heal, grow, and thrive, while others develop mental health challenges,” she says.

Some factors are shown to buffer individuals from the effects of racism on mental health, according to Powell.

“They include religious and spiritual coping, healthy racial socialization (socialization that emphasizes racial pride), forgiveness, engaging in advocacy, etc.,” she says.

Powell explains, “BIPOC communities are coping with racism by taking breaks—demonstrating that resting, stepping away, and refueling can be a powerful form of coping and mounting resistance.”

Racism can be detrimental at any age, but Powell notes that adolescence is a sensitive developmental period, and therefore especially challenging.

“This period is already marked by rapid hormonal, affective, and identity shifts that increase risk for mental health challenges,” she says.

“We should acknowledge that youth and adolescents will not hope and cope their way out of racism. They deserve dignifying mental health support and services that rise up to meet them at their highest intentions for radical healing.”

What This Means For You

Online racial harassment continues to impact BIPOC communities at higher rates, which has serious mental health repercussions. If you or someone you care about is affected by white supremacist harm, you are encouraged to explore culturally safe options for support.

Read the full article here

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