“Your English is so good!” she said politely as I sought to explain the nature of the transaction I would like to undertake. I couldn’t help but respond, “Well I am from a British colony.” I have never been assessed by the quality of my English before but I guess there is a first time for everything.

What would have given this friendly woman the idea that I was unlikely to speak English well? I shudder to think that she looked at me and, from my physical appearance, had some expectations — but when I was different from what she expected she was impressed. Yet in interaction after interaction, it became abundantly clear that something about me was triggering this lowered expectation of capacity and competency. With each interaction, I asked the question, “Do you know who I am?”

As I listened to the experiences of people of colour, I realized that my experiences paled compared to theirs. The micro-aggressions and institutional racism I experienced in Windsor was nothing compared to the upfront, in your face, graffiti on the wall, hurling of racial slurs in the middle of a worship service, or deliberate exclusion that they have experienced.

For the first time in three years, it bothered me. Maybe I had been functioning in my Caribbean “water off my back” resilience, but it had worn off. As I began to pay attention to the stories more intently, my own pain grew and I became conscious that what I dismissed as “they just don’t know who I am” was not really the issue at all. It is true; there is racism here, but it is polite, well dressed and wears a different face.

The fire of activism is in my blood, to resist oppression is who I am. But for me, there are two kinds of activists in the world, those who engage with the system — government, institutions, policies — and those who engage with the people that are affected by the system towards healing, resilience, and resistance. I am called to be the second kind.

As I sifted through my own pain and the pain in the stories of people of colour, I identified what I call the “Racism Reaction.” The racism reaction is for me what happens to a person when they have a racist encounter (overt or covert). My theory is informed mostly by my own experiences and recovery, and by my background in psychotherapy. I hope that these ruminating ideas will lead me to a place where I can help others and strengthen my own capacity as we build the resiliency required to cope and transcend racism.

The Racism Reaction is a combination of the grief response and experiencing a threat to self-actualizing. I interpret this issue in light of two well-known theories, the work of Kübler-Ross and Kessler on grief and grieving, and Maslow’s need hierarchy and model of self-actualizing. I define the grief experienced after a racist encounter as the “temporary loss of personhood,” and the threat to self-actualizing is specifically the threat to esteem needs, which in many contexts has implications for security and physiological need satisfaction. Like any other loss, we go through the stages of grief as we deal with the temporary loss of personhood in these encounters.

Denial – after the encounter, the individual seeks to pace the grief response by finding explanations for the encounter and what they may have experienced, such as “they just don’t know who I am.”

Anger – depending on the nature of the encounter, it may take a while before the denial stops working and the individual is forced to come to terms with the reality of the event and anger sets in. The anger may manifest itself in the internal conflict conversation ending with “not knowing who I am is no reason to treat me that way.”

Bargaining – at this stage the individual, seeking to “calm” down, develops context for the incidents and reassures his/her self with the “maybe ifs.” Maybe if they had done something differently they would not have had that experience — “maybe if I had said upfront who I was I would have been treated differently.”

Depression – it is not too long before it becomes apparent that the “maybe ifs” do not change the outcome and this creates a deep sadness. This is not the same as clinical depression, though there is literature to suggest there are long-term physio-psychological effects to living in these environments.

Acceptance – the individual recognizes the reality of the situation and prepares themselves to deal with it wherever it arises. The individual recognizes, “it has nothing to do with who I am, it is about what I look like.” When it comes to racism, it is important to not internalize this acceptance, but instead move from acceptance to action.

I would therefore extend the grief process to include one other stage which I refer to as:

Recovery – this is the stage where the individual lays the foundation for coping by applying five strategies which I name using the acronym A.S.H.E.S. These strategies will allow the individual to develop resilience within the culture. These are:

  • Accepting – the individual will need to accept that they are in an environment where they are likely to experience a variety of micro-aggressions as well as overt racism. Accepting this reality will reduce the shock, denial, anger, and bargaining that tends to occur with each experience.
  • Sharing – the individual will need to share their experiences with other people from their community for solidarity and support. Sharing also reducing the feelings of isolation.
  • Healing – the individual should take time to deal with the feelings of inadequacy, questioning, second guessing of self, and sense of threat that this experience evoked. This is also the time to deal with unresolved anger and sadness from the initial grief process.
  • Educate – it is important that the individual let the person/organization who exhibited this behaviour know that they have done so. Take this opportunity to provide insight into the nature of the offence and how you think this may be handled differently in the future. It may not change anything immediately, but it may be the starting point for consciousness raising.
  • Strengthening – the individual engages in a series of personal engagements designed to affirm who they are and strengthening any aspects of the self that may have been affected by the experience.

This was the essence of my journey, learning to turn to “ashes” the effects of encounters that sought to question, even challenge, my capacity simply based on what I looked like. I commend my thoughts to those on this journey to help edify you.

And by the way:

  • “No… I am not lost, I am the guest speaker for this event.”
  • “No… the source of my intellect is not Canada, it is a small island in the Caribbean called Jamaica.”
  • “Yes…we speak English in Jamaica, it is our first language, we also have a dialect called patois.”
  • “Yes…I have an accent and so do you, I have to listen carefully to understand what you are saying too.”

I know you don’t know who I am, but start by thinking of me as your equal and the rest will take care of itself.

— Rev. Sadekie Lyttle-Forbes, BSc., B.A. MSc. is ministry personnel in Windsor, Ontario. Her background is in clinical psychology and counselling.