“This can’t be happening.” “I feel like throwing up.” “I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.” “Life is going to get a lot worse for people like me.” “I’m so sad I can’t even think about it anymore.” “Things are never going to be the same again.”
I’ve actually heard these statements from people pained by Donald Trump’s election. Such sentiments convey a mix of disbelief, despondency, powerlessness and fear.
That said, there are many people who are thrilled with the new administration. As a psychologist who researches the ways discrimination experiences impact well-being, however, I am particularly sensitive to those in distress.
My research, and that of other social scientists, helps explain why a Trump presidency is difficult for so many people – and particularly acute for those who have already experienced trauma based on some of the issues identified with Trump.
For example, many women who have been sexually abused were deeply affected because of recorded statements he had made about grabbing women in their crotches. Additionally, many African-Americans who felt empowered and validated by an Obama presidency felt deep sorrow and fear at Trump’s election, due in part to published accounts of his father’s company not renting to African-Americans. There is some good news among all this; there are strategies for coping.
Repeated stress wears the body down
It has proven hard for those opposed to Trump to adjust to his election. Many have felt like they are in the middle of an ongoing stress storm. Immigrants, for example, are stressed over concerns about being deported and separated from their families.
Making matters worse, some are more vulnerable to this storm’s impact than others. The more storms a person has endured, the greater the damage this new storm can inflict.
The reason why this happens is called allostatic load – the wear and tear on the body caused by ongoing stress. This deterioration is cumulative and can lead to physical, psychological and cognitive declines, including early death.
Along with genetics, environment and behavior, social demographics like race, gender and age also influence the weight of the load. University of Michigan public health professor Arline Geronimus and her colleagues captured this phenomenon when they examined allostatic load in black and white women and men.
They found that black participants, particularly black women, were more likely to have higher allostatic loads than white women and white men, above and beyond the effects of poverty. In other words, black people generally carried more stress in their daily lives.
Age matters too. Allostatic loads were similarly distributed across race and gender prior to age 30. From there, however, the loads disproportionately increased with age, revealing racial and gender gaps that widened over time (white men consistently had the lowest scores, followed closely by white women).
It’s not easy being different
Some psychologists believe the stress of otherness – being viewed and treated negatively due to group membership – is one reason for the unequal “weathering” effect. Mounting evidence gives credence to this belief.
My research group, for example, found black, Latino and Asian undergraduates report significantly more individual and ethnic-group discrimination than white undergraduates. Similarly, almost 100 percent of the black college women my collaborators and I sampled reported experiencing racial discrimination. In both studies, incidences of discrimination were associated with depressive symptoms and, in some cases, anxiety.
So the interplay between high allostatic load and low social position increases vulnerability. This is not good news for the many people of color, women, undocumented immigrants, sexual minorities and Muslims who are stressed out about a Trump presidency.
Strategies that can help
Before giving in to despair, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Psychological research points to promising coping techniques shown to lighten allostatic load and mitigate negative stress outcomes, even among those exposed to prolonged high-stress situations.
If you plan to endure the social changes under way with gritted teeth and clenched fists, I invite you to experiment with the above techniques to find what combination might work for you. Four years is a long time to be battered by a storm; preparation could mean a lot less damage, especially if previous storms have worn you down.
Contrary to the view from outside the Ivory Tower, academic life is stressful (as if you needed me to tell you). One study even found faculty burnout and stress levels are similar to those of K-12 teachers and medical professionals. Why? Because our work is NEVER done. There is always another manuscript to write, paper to grade, meeting to attend.
On top of this general stress, women faculty of color must contend with a variety of structural and interpersonal stressors that negatively impact our health and create a sense of isolation and otherness, such as:
A rational response to these stressors is to seek safety by turning inward and disconnecting from those around you – why risk opening up to people if that brings more hurt and pain? Compelling as this response is, there are considerable physical and mental health drawbacks, making it a definite don’t.
Turning toward empathic others, alternatively, has been shown to have tremendous stress-reducing benefits. There is nothing more validating and cathartic than telling your story and being seen, heard, valued, and believed. Moreover, knowing others have similar challenges helps with healthy perspective development.
Recap. Don’t go it alone; do develop supportive networks—a.k.a. Sister Circles.
Okay, let’s be clear – implementing the advice to develop Sister Circles is not easy, especially for those of us who find making new connections challenging (like me), are in spaces where there are few other women faculty of color, or have little in common with the women faculty of color who are available. If this is you, even just a little, don’t despair. There are strategies that can make circle building easier, and I outline six below. I invite you to implement one or more of these strategies to bring you one step closer to getting the support you need.
Caveat. The strategies require a level of interpersonal risk, so intentionality and commitment are necessary to ensure success.
1. Attend local, regional, and national events where women faculty of color gather.
The National Women’s Studies Association Women of Color Leadership Project is an example of one such event. These gatherings can be an oasis for those struggling to find connection, but they can also be rather intimidating if you don’t know many people. To make connecting easier, identify beforehand a few individuals you would like to meet. If you have colleagues in common, request an e-introduction prior to the event. If not, show up to their talk and be sure to ask a question. Then go up and request their card so you can follow-up. If that is difficult, find a role that will facilitate interaction, such as helping to register conference participants or offering to chair a session where someone you want to meet is presenting.
2. Invite women faculty of color to present at your institution.
Depending on your position and institutional resources, this might require advocacy and fund-raising. Good places to start are the diversity office or teaching and learning center. If you pull this off, consider seeking help from other women faculty of color to organize the visit and be sure to volunteer to drive the speaker to and from the airport to get extra face-time.
3. Ask those faculty you already know to connect you with other women faculty of color.
This snowball strategy is most helpful if the referring person is willing to facilitate a casual meeting or e-introduction.
4. Don’t let distance limit who’s in your circle.
Face-to-face connections with other women faculty of color are wonderful but not always possible, so use technology as a connection-building tool. I have several wonderful Sister Circles with women who live great distances from me and each other. These circles work because we commit to regularly scheduled conference calls throughout the year.
5. Seek advice from those women faculty of color you want to get to know.
Asking someone to be your friend is a sure-fire way to creep them out. Seeking advice, however, is a great way to show your respect and desire to know more about what she thinks.
6. Implement structures that facilitate connections among women faculty of color.
This might require more energy and commitment than the other strategies but could yield sustainable results. Possibilities include organizing a women faculty of color support network, university learning community, or mutual-mentoring group.
Is it worth the risk? Yes, yes…and…wait for it…yes.
There is much about the stress of the Ivory Tower we can’t control. But we can choose to buffer the impact of this stress by seeking support from and sharing support with our sisters. As a wonderful bonus, these efforts model good sisterhood for the next generation of women faculty of color. So take the risk and start building your Sister Circle today.
In peace and solidarity,