How to Respond to Discrimination and Bias

Discrimination is the unjust treatment of people based on characteristics such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, weight, disability, and more. Discrimination is perpetuated by societal norms, cultural institutions, and through explicit or implicit bias. It can occur in such small ways, both in personal interactions and in how institutions are structured, that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize when we or someone we know is being discriminated against. Since discrimination has a very powerful effect on mental health and well-being, it is vital to understand how to recognize and respond to it in productive ways.

If you do recognize bias in action, it is important to address it if you feel safe doing so. Whether we are the target of discrimination, a witness to the discrimination of others, or noticing our own biases, taking active steps to address discrimination where we see it is a way that we can collectively create more equitable and healthy environments and relationships.

What to Do if You are the Target of Discrimination

Discrimination can be structural, like refusing to rent a home to someone because of their race or refusing to hire someone for a job because of their sexual orientation. It can also be personal, like using derogatory language against someone of another race or reacting disrespectfully because of someone’s religious or ethnic practices and symbols. It can also come in the form of microaggressions: indirect, subtle, or unintentional comments or actions that are prejudicial toward a marginalized group.

If you feel you are the target of discrimination, consider taking one or more of the steps below.

Keep a Detailed Record of Discriminatory Actions

There are laws prohibiting discrimination against members of legally  protected groups, or those groups recognized as vulnerable to discrimination based on characteristics such as age, race, gender, disability, and more. This means institutions like schools, businesses, medical practices, and government agencies can face penalties for institutional discrimination against people in these groups.

But even with these protections in place, discrimination still occurs. If you are being discriminated against at work, school, or a business, it is recommended that you keep a record of the discrimination and share it with a manager, an administrator, or someone else with authority who can help correct the situation. Depending on the circumstance, this may look different, but some examples include:

  • Save screenshots and messages to document personal instances of discrimination. For example, if someone sends you a homophobic text message or makes a racist remark in an email, save it as evidence.
  • Make note of instances of discriminatory or derogatory language or actions. Include the dates and times of the incidents, what you saw and heard, and other circumstances, like if there was anyone else present.
  • If it’s allowed and if you feel safe enough to do so, take photos or video to document the incident as it is occurring.

Take Care of Yourself

Experiencing discrimination and bias can take a toll on your mental health, especially if it is part of your everyday reality. The discrimination we experience can lead to elevated levels of stress, increased risk of depression and anxiety, and even an increased risk of suicidal thoughts. Discrimination can also lead to poor self-image, which can in some cases cause people to internalize the messages that they hear about the groups they belong to—this is called internalized bias.

Since it is not always possible to avoid situations in which we are the target of discrimination, finding ways of coping with what we experience, big and small, is important for our mental health. Try these strategies for coping:

  • Practice positive self-talk. If you’re getting negative messages about your worth, it helps to focus on your strengths and your core values.
  • Avoid dwelling. It’s very hard to shake off discrimination. Dwelling on negative experiences can actually cause higher levels of stress or anxiety.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. Being the target of discrimination can stir up a lot of negative feelings including anger, sadness, and frustration. Mindfulness and meditation can help you get in touch with your feelings without judgment.
  • Find community. Experiencing discrimination can be isolating. Having a strong support system among your family and friends can help. It can also be empowering to join groups of people in your community who have had similar experiences.
  • Seek help from a mental health professional. Part of your support system can be a therapist who is trained in dealing with issues of discrimination.

What to Do if You Witness Discrimination

Research shows that even when dicrimination is overt, witnesses are often hesitant to speak up—especially if there are many other people present. This is because of what’s known as the bystander effect: we hope that someone else will intervene because we do not want the pressure and the responsibility of assisting the person in distress. Many of us also fear that we will become the next target if we speak out. These feelings, which can sometimes be subconscious, often stop witnesses from doing anything at all.

And just as it’s sometimes hard to know if you are the target of discrimination, it’s not always easy to spot discrimination when it’s happening to someone else. But there are things we can do to address acts of discrimination and biased behavior as they happen.

What to Do In the Moment

  • Do not leave the person who is being targeted alone with the person who is being discriminatory against them. Stay with the person being targeted until they feel they are safe.
  • Offer your support to the person experiencing discrimination.
  • If the conflict is not violent, try to calmly step in without escalating the situation.
  • Calmly explain why what was said was harmful. Do so without ridiculing anyone, as that could escalate the situation.
  • Lead with empathy and encourage others to empathize with the person who is being targeted.
  • If the person who is being targeted is able to do so, allow them to speak rather than speaking for them.
  • If the discriminatory act is taking place in a business or at a school, take detailed notes of what you witnessed immediately afterwards. Remember to include dates and times.
  • If a crime has been committed, or you or others are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. If you believe that a hate crime has been committed, additional steps can be taken after reporting the crime to ensure that your concerns are taken seriously.

What to Do If You’re Not Sure It’s Discrimination

If you are unsure if what you witnessed was a biased or discriminatory act against someone else or an unkind or rude gesture, the best approach is to be a supportive ally to the person who was targeted. Empathize with them, listen to what they need, and offer support when and how you can.

We may not be able to control the actions of other people or institutions, but we can control how we respond when we see or experience discrimination. Having the tools to effectively respond to and cope with discrimination can help us protect our mental health and improve our communities.

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