You “made it” through the racism/sexism…now what?

Image from Hidden Figures: NASA Engineer Mary Jackson (portrayed by Janelle Monáe)

What is the impact of long-term immersion in a majority White and Asian male environment?

My body tenses up, my breathing gets louder and my thoughts start to drown out the present pushing me further away from what is happening in front of me. Freezing is what psychologists call it. It is when my body decides (before my mind has a say so) that it is time to dissociate from the present reality. It is when I make myself ‘disappear’ into my inner safety net of thoughts and block out that which is too painful, scary, confusing to process. I ‘freeze’.

Strange thing is, I started doing this out of necessity. I found myself in an environment where I was extremely isolated and unable to connect with many of my peers in the way they connected with one another. Once I realized that I was not going to be ‘included’ in the same way as others, it was hard to know what to do with that reality, How to face it day to day. There is talk nationwide about diversity and inclusion and how to make spaces better for those of us who are severely underrepresented. But there is not much talk about the coping strategies for dealing with these realities in the present.

My unconscious self decided that at times, it can be most self-preserving not to deal with them at all. So before I had the intentional awareness to identify what I was doing, I began to ‘freeze’ and dissociate from my reality. It actually worked much better for the people around me as well.

For instance, one day during a course lecture where I sat front and center in full view of everyone in the classroom, I raised my hand to ask a question. When a few moments went by without the Professor acknowledging my hand, I thought ‘oh maybe he wants to finish this section before taking questions’. So I waited for a natural pause in the lecture and raised my hand again. Still, no acknowledgement. It was as if I was…invisible. I looked around at my peers who also seemed confused. By the end of the lecture, I had raised my hand about 3–4 times, not once did the professor even look in my direction to acknowledge my presence or my question. While walking out of the lecture, one of my peers said ‘huh, that was strange’, shrugged then moved on about the day.

That is just one example I recall. The point is I could give you hundreds of examples and so could any black woman in a US science department. Unless… I created an alternate reality within myself where I could go to escape. How could anyone ‘like’ experiencing the effects of generations of systemic racism and sexism in science? Maybe the point was not to enjoy it at all, but to put your head down and get through it.

What do you do with developed survival mechanisms that are having unintended effects?

So practicing dissociating from reality started for me as a strategy of survival. Surviving a constantly toxic or negative environment requires a special skill set in its own right. A skill set you may not have known you had until you left that environment. But what happens when those survival skills start to transcend the environment and become habits for your body and mind? What happens when you are constantly bracing yourself for the unspoken, unheard, unseen blows? What impact does this have on the psyche? What impact did this have on me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my ‘freezing’. The blurring out of my brain. The way my body literally shuts off my access to my brain. How many people find peace in simply ignoring continuous painful experiences or dare I say traumas? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we just shut our brains off and folded ourselves deeply into a better present reality? If you did this too often and for too long, would that reality change or have you just fully adjusted your psyche to normalize that which was never normal.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

Because I realized that while it started out as a coping mechanism, various coping mechanisms have infiltrated every other aspect of my life. I am in a new environment, meeting new people, feeling different vibes. And it is hard to adjust. Sometimes, I have an idea or want to collaborate with my peers or someone asks me a technical question or my thoughts on a suggestion…and I ‘freeze’. Sometimes, I find myself in a building or around people that remind me of my old environment…and I ‘freeze’. I guess my body has gotten so used to it, that I don’t know how to turn it off or when to invoke it. It doesn’t happen every single moment of every single day, for sure. But it happens often and in situations where I would prefer it did not.

I am still thinking through all of this.

A few tips for moving forward

In order to move on to your best life, I think the goal is to unlearn these coping mechanisms which first requires figuring out what they are for you personally. I find that paying attention to my body and my physical responses to situations is helpful to identify when the response does not match up with the situation. I also find that talking through painful experiences is helpful to move on. Getting a therapist (if possible) or talking deeply with a supportive and loving friend is super necessary.

Patience really is a virtue. It takes time to unlearn behaviors. And it takes time to discover what the healthiest version of yourself really looks like. So you gotta be patient with yourself. This entire process of healing can take a really long time and will continue to impact various areas of your life. Try not to be too hard on yourself.

Allow all of the negative experiences to inform your future discernment. Meaning, as you reflect and work through your experiences, pay attention to the patterns and trends associated with that environment. This way you can identify them in the future or help someone else navigating a similar environment.

I know this experience is not unique to underrepresented minorities in science in the US. And not unique to students at US Universities. (more on the connection between anxiety and constantly experiencing racism) But it is the lens through which I share my truth. More to come as I think more about this.

in freedom,


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