“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”
- James Baldwin in A Letter To My Nephew
History of Racism in the US
Racism - racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable. (source)
Perhaps the first form of racism this country saw was in the 13th and 14th centuries. While I'm sure it existed beforehand, documented history came to fruition with the misidentification of Jewish people and the fear of witchcraft. The period of the Renaissance and Reformation meant that white Europeans were coming more into contact with those who had a darker complexion. Slave owners sometimes justified slavery from a story in the book of Genesis - interpreting a passage where Ham committed a sin and his black descendants were condemned to be servants. The beginning of 1667 saw a shift of racism from religious ideology to being more race-based. This was when Virginia declared that slaves could be bondaged solely based on their 'heathen ancestry.' The late 17th century also saw the outlaw of interracial marriages and discrimination of mixed-raced offspring. The climax of the history of racism against BIPOC individuals came in the twentieth century. This time includes the passage of segregation laws, restrictions on black voting rights, and extreme racist propaganda which fueled murder and lynchings.
The growth of nationalism carried racist principles to the extreme in Nazi Germany. This romantic cultural nationalism spiked during the late 1870s in the belief that to be Jewish in Germany was the antithesis of the race to which 'true Germans' belonged. This period of time saw the term "antisemitism" coined led by decades of the continued rise of the Nazi Party, racist legislation, and forced labor. Politics of racism, including the force of all German Jews to emigrate in 1938 continued well before the Holocaust. Hitler and his cohorts attempted to exterminate an entire ethnic group purely based on racist ideology. Around 6 million Jews were killed during the years of the Holocaust.
Meanwhile starting in the 1800s, Chinese immigrants came to the US in hopes of playing an important role in building the US, starting with the transcontinental railroad. The jobs that they accepted were low pay and dangerous, but necessary due to financial pressures back home. As more immigrants arrived in the US, American resentment grew stronger. Chinese laborers were seen as a threat for potentially taking jobs from Americans. This became known as the "yellow peril" and fueled violence and racist laws such as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre in 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 - the first major law restricting immigration in the US. Japanese immigrants seized the opportunity of this act to replace Chinese workers, but would face much of the same resistance including anti-Asian legislation and propaganda. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943. The Bubonic Plague, which was blamed on Chinese immigrants much like COVID created another opportunity for violence, othering, and segregation. Japanese internment camps were created in 1942 based on an Eisenhower executive order to "remove any person considered a threat to US security." Military zones were created in neighborhoods with high populations of Japanese Americans where they were forced to relocate to internment camps.
American explicit racism came under scrutiny resulting from the decolonization of Africa and Asia along with the help of United Nations representatives. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in outlawing legalized racial segregation and discrimination. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson eliminated the quota laws that existed, allowing a merit-based immigration system to the US. However, racism does not require the support of the state or law to exist. Discrimination, oppression, and racism very well exist today both overtly and implicitly. Post-9/11 racial profiling and hate crimes against South Asians, continued lynching of Black people by the police, and COVID-19's racist associations with the Chinese are just a few examples of the continued proof of bigotry today. Racism in America is not just in our history - it's in the blood of our institutions, structures, government, and peers today.
Mental Health Impact of Racism
While horrifying images of brutality, protests, and public outcry make the headlines, we cannot ignore the fact that racism, oppression, colonization, and discrimination significantly negatively impact people of color every single day. Racial trauma, or race-based trauma, exists. Racial trauma can mimic many of the same effects that exist in PTSD. This includes chronic stress, hyperarousal, re-experiencing, negative emotion, and avoidance. These negative outcomes have been found to exist in children of color as early as 12 years old. Racial trauma's impact is not only limited to mental health, but also significantly impacts physical health. Mental health and physical health symptoms are then exacerbated due to the systemic racism of unequal access to proper physical and mental health care.
Intergenerational and historical trauma exists as well, mostly in families that are or have been marginalized. Intergenerational trauma is referred to as the pain, trauma, behaviors, and beliefs passed down from generation to generation. Much like genetics, these are traits that are predetermined before our birth and something that we are given no choice in inheriting. Think of intergenerational trauma also like culture. It's an element that your family adopted at some point and influences habits down the familial line. While this term was first identified among Holocaust survivors, intergenerational trauma can be seen in all families that have experienced oppression. As an example, your grandparents might have endured poverty, war, racism, sexism, or immigration. In turn, your parents might have endured domestic violence, repressed anger, substance use, and untreated mental illness. This leads to your possible experience of perfectionism, codependency, attachment injuries, depression, anxiety, and so on. Historical trauma is similar but different. Historical trauma is a traumatic event or experience shared by a community, ethnic, or national group. Both historical trauma and intergenerational trauma create mental health impacts if left unaddressed or unsupported.
Resources for BIPOC
Mental Health Resources:
Resources for AAPI
Mental Health Resources:
Action Items For Allies
1. Educate yourself
Start off by consuming information to learn how to be anti-racist. This resource is a good place to start. Understand the history of racism for all marginalized identities. Consult the 'Power and Privilege' wheel to educate yourself and become familiar with your location to power and privilege. Become acquainted with the historical dehumanization of people of color. This includes laws and policies implemented to support white supremacy and created a system of othering. Learning the terms related to anti-oppression work can also help with clarity.
2. Be intentional
Being an ally is a process of both learning and unlearning. Affirm why you want to be anti-racist and make a commitment to showing up intentionally with that ideology every day. Become comfortable with the idea that challenging bias can be uncomfortable. Utilize mindfulness in your efforts to understand your reactions and relationship with colonized ideas and norms. This is also a good resource for identifying parts of white supremacy culture that you may be continuing to hold onto. Harvard also came out with an implicit bias test that helps to reveal blindspots in our unconscious ideologies.
3. Diversify your information
Follow and share content from BIPOC leaders in the activist community. Respect the lived experiences shared by those who have been oppressed. It's important to actively seek out representation in news, events, and resources provided by marginalized communities - AsAmNews and Black News & Views are good places to start. Read books by BIPOC authors. Consume television and movies created by and starring BIPOC and actors. Share those that you enjoy with others.
4. Give back
Donate and volunteer for organizations that support and protect BIPOC. Protest and advocate for issues that affect BIPOC people in the world and in your community. Support the call for reparations. Shop at and support small businesses owned by the BIPOC community. Challenge your loved ones on implicit or explicit racist ideologies. Advocate for the dismantling of systemic, colonized norms in the US. Confer with DEI consultants on how to continue to implement inclusivity into your daily life.