White Supremacy's Impact on Mental Health of BIPOC Folks

The United States has a long history of white supremacy—the idea that white people are superior to people with other skin colors and ethnic backgrounds. White supremacy is also perpetuated by systems in society that fail to reflect the diversity of BIPOC people and therefore, fail to meet their needs equitably.

Given the American history of Indigenous genocide and enslavement of Black folks, white supremacy tends to be ingrained in the DNA of this country.

Impact on BIPOC Mental Health

It is impossible to review all of the ways in which white supremacy harms BIPOC folks, as its ramifications are complex both on the personal and societal level.

A basic understanding of the pervasive nature of white supremacy can develop your ability to think more critically about how this is perpetuated in small and large ways.

Lack of Adequate Services

There is no shortage of ways in which white supremacy negatively impacts the mental health of BIPOC folks, and this issue is further compounded by how many barriers they confront when attempting to access culturally competent services, given how mental health can often be treated by practitioners who lack any remote understanding of systemic oppression.

Lack of Representation

In a research study that delved into beauty and body image issues experienced by Black college students, these women reported that Eurocentric beauty standards had a negative impact on self-esteem, especially when mainstream media either lacked any representation of them or portrayed them as less desirable or hypersexualized. 

With experiences like these, BIPOC folks often develop anxiety and depressive symptoms as they reconcile how their bodies fail to conform to how they are represented in society and how they do not fit what is typically "valued."

While to some, these may appear to be minor challenges on the surface, when BIPOC folks experience these on a regular basis for an extended period of time, they can internalize it as a poor reflection of themselves, rather than systems that are inherently white supremacist.

For instance, growing up not seeing anyone who looks like you in a classroom, on television, or even in your community can have negative internalized effects. It has been found that when children do not have healthy, positive representations of people who share their identities, it leads to lower self-esteem and ultimately limits their potential.

Similarities to PTSD

Racial trauma has been compared to post-traumatic stress disorder, yet it can be more damaging as it refers to ongoing individual and collective harms from repeated exposure to race-based stress.  In this way, it is inevitable that BIPOC folks will be retraumatized as there is no shortage of race-based stress triggers in a white supremacist society, so mental health is bound to be negatively impacted by such rampant environmental factors.

Examples of Systemic White Supremacy

There are countless examples of the influence of white supremacy in society—particularly among popular media, in American schools, and more.

Children's Literature

In terms of representation in children's literature, research from the Cooperative Children's Book Center demonstrated how children's literature remains devastatingly white, as you are more likely to find a character that is not human, at a rate of 27%, in a kid’s book, than a BIPOC child, at a rate of only 23%.

This further disadvantages these students with the implicit messaging that their stories do not matter as much as their white peers' stories do. 

Similar patterns are the norm regarding whose narratives are given attention in films and television shows, in comparison to whose lives are viewed as disposable.

American School System

Within the American school system, the way in which learning focuses on the narratives of some at the expense of others can be an example of white supremacy.

For instance, many people go through the American education system learning American history from the perspective of the dominant culture. In other words, ask yourself how often you read accounts from the perspectives of the cultures that colonizers violently interrupted, such as those of Indigenous peoples or enslaved Black folks? In this way, we are emphasizing the perspective of the oppressors and not those who were oppressed.

With this in mind, writer Layla F. Saad issued a challenge to educators to reflect on how their classrooms may have been spaces wherein white supremacy had been unintentionally reinforced, and some folks did that much-needed work to unpack their own complicity with systems of bigotry that harm BIPOC students.

How Educators Challenged White Supremacy

  • Recognizing their racist thoughts
  • Challenging these racist thoughts
  • Acknowledging times when their silence reinforced white supremacy in their classrooms
  • Developing more advanced understandings in general of how school systems embody a far from equitable distribution of power that is not in favor of BIPOC students

Confronting White Supremacist Norms

Coping skills vary among BIPOC folks, but it can be helpful to consider the strategies that were useful when dealing with other challenging situations when confronting white supremacist harms. For some BIPOC folks, engaging in some type of intense physical activity can help to release some stress from the reality of their oppression and provide a much-needed reprieve.

Other BIPOC folks may feel empowered from engaging in advocacy or activism volunteering efforts to experience some semblance of control when white supremacist harms can often leave those impacted feeling helpless and hopeless.

Especially given how the experience of white supremacist harms can negatively impact the mental health of BIPOC folks, it can be easier to cope when connected with a community who understands these issues so that they validate their feelings, rather than gaslight them due to their own ignorance or defensiveness.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, depending on your context, it may be more challenging for some BIPOC folks to cultivate a supportive community, especially if marginalized in other ways as well—such as someone who is both Black and Muslim. They may find their Blackness welcomed in a space, but later find it to be Islamophobic.

In cases like these, media from BIPOC creators can provide some semblance of connection, such as podcasts by hosts who share lived experience and interests that are similar to listeners. In this way, BIPOC folks have often had to strategize creative solutions to white supremacist harms, much like their ancestors.

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