You'd think everyone feels stress at one time or another-whether from work or financial responsibilities, credit scores or the like, right? Well, it turns out, just being a member of a minority- whether that be cultural, racial, religious, ethnic or sexual minority- just existing has a whole extra level of angst- a concept known as minority stress.
In a nutshell, there's a whole extra layer of anxiety living in a society where you're not realistically portrayed on tv and in the media. Black men portrayed as aggressive thugs. Gay men portrayed as flamboyant interior designers. Women portrayed as incapable sex objects, just asking to be raped. Trans people barely portrayed at all. Atheists dismissed as angry Satanists trying to take away your Christmas parties. There are countless other examples.
May the odds be ever in your favor
Let's use "The Hunger Games" as an example. You know how people who live in the Capital views everyone in the outer districts as quaint little savages? And you know how everyone in the districts seem really broken and unhappy? When something (a lifestyle, culture, ethnic group, religion) is presented as normal and decent and good, the people that find themselves matching up to that might not recognize how privileged a position they are in. Anyone who is outside of that normal, decent good paradigm is at risk of struggling with minority stress in addition to the other stressors that people have to deal with on the planet.
Remember in "The Hunger Games" how the privileged system makes sure it stays privileged? Fear. Celebrity. Police Violence. More celebrity. Public floggings in the town square. And Effie just wants to have nice things. (I just want my bling, or my new iPhone, and it'll all be okay.) And the people are pushed to their breaking points. Now go outside in any major city in the last few days. Look familiar? Only it's less appealing because there aren't pretty white, hetero actors to save the day. (Oh, and not seeing more diversity on screen? More minority stress.)
Asking for it
Have you heard the expression "You don't know what you don't know"? It's difficult to recognize that you are benefiting from being part of that default System branding of normal, decent and good. The result often manifests in the form of a microaggression. ("Aww, handsome fella like you, I bet all the ladies are after you! Why no ring on that finger?!") Micro-aggressions are like little slaps in the face all day reminding you that the System thinks heterosexual coupling and marriage are normal, decent, good and desirable, for instance. In some cases, the speaker has no concept that there could even be other options. I was once interviewed for a job as a therapist and the interviewer, a social worker in rural Missouri said "You know, we're a family-friendly hunting and fishing community". Uhh - WTF?! So heterosexuality, guns and meat-eating for all- conform or you're not welcome. This kind of talk is a subtle way of a member of the System exerting the will of the System.
"Oh, you don't LOOK Mexican"
So when people who aren't part of the default system try to stand up and make themselves heard, the response from the System is often something like "Here comes the thought police. Sorry, I'm not politically correct." Cognitive distortions, such as self-serving bias (why are you people so angry, *I* didn't do anything to you- jeeze, it's like reverse racism or something! The bullied are just big bullies - that's not fair!") or victim blaming ("Well, if those gays just didn't dress as women in a black neighborhood, they wouldn't have been shot by those mean black people.") are common. And these biases are just reinforced by versions of this narrative shown over and over until the next news cycle.
Let's continue with this example. This is the System saying - homos are asking for it by acting like women. This is the System saying women are weak. This is the System saying white neighborhoods are safe and blacks are violent. This is "othering" in action. Women might see this in the news and think "Wait- WTF?!- what's wrong with dressing like a woman?! Women deserve to be shot?!" A person of color might see this with a - WTF- ANOTHER news item selected to reinforce violent black stereotypes?! And if you're gay you see this like- WTF - gay men don't deserve to be SHOT regardless of what type of clothes they are wearing- oh, and we don't act like women. And if you're a trans woman you see this and are like- WTF?! - I'm not a gay man - and I can't even wear the clothes I feel most comfortable in because I might get SHOT?! Other groups who might not be related to the issue of the day see this as yet another example of the System working only for the System and not for anyone else- and it's like an extra bit of generalized anxiety added to the minority life until the next news cycle. Say anything, and you're painted as an angry activist, or playing some sort of victim card, or you're dismissed as playing "politically correct" though police/ social justice warrior role.
The People sometimes try to fight back by organizing Black Lives Matters protests or Gay Pride marches or celebrating the accomplishments of blacks or gays or women throughout history. And how are these counter-messages received? "ALL" Lives Matter- you're being racist. Or worse "BLUE Lives Matter"- why do you hate cops?!) Every year someone tries to organize "Straight Pride" or "White History month". Whatever the System can do to stamp out dissent.
People of the System - if activists seem angry to you, then you don't know what you don't know. If you think "the pc thought police" are after you, taking away your freedom of expression, you don't know what you don't know. And what you don't know is that you're perfectly on brand according to the System, and you are part of the oppression of others. The blacks aren't here to hurt you, and they don't want to be addressed with language that came from slavers. The gays aren't here to ruin marriage or degrade "Family Values", and though we are reclaiming Queer as an inclusive identity, we don't want to be addressed as homosexuals and faggots. The feminists aren't here to ruin video games, and they don't want to be addressed as toots, sweetheart or the 'lil lady (or as a piece of ass, Mr. Trump and Mr. Stern). Native Americans aren't hear to ruin football, and want to be addressed and acknowledged as the original Americans. And we aren't "uppity" (another common way to dismiss) - we're challenging whole lifetimes of exclusion or negative portrayals by the various machines you use to reinforce your brand and we're tired of being told to know our place. It's hateful to call us by words you've invented to demean and objectify us. We will decide how we want to be addressed, and we will decide again as language and issues evolve.
What do I do?
So what do you do if you find yourself struggling with the concepts of minority stress? Well, sometimes you protest, sometimes you riot. In some cases you suppress the anxiety and rage by trying to pass as part of the System. Sometimes you try to trust in change and put your faith in politicians or church leaders. In some cases you do your best to snatch up anything the System has to offer to better your life and those around you as best you can (while trying to keep a strong sense of self and establish a community of like-minded people to help manage it all). And sometimes you move from one coping strategy to the other several times a day- and that, my friends, is exhausting. And when people feel exhausted and are already marginalized, they aren't always going to be able to take the high road- the road, incidentally, that completely avoids the System having to make meaningful, fundamental changes.
I wish I had easy answers. The best I can come up with is to all help share the load by sharing our experiences with whoever will listen until we begin to recognize the value, variety and dignity in everyone. Is that just pollyannaism? I don't think progress comes from isolating and shutting it all up inside- I'm a therapist after all- our whole m.o. is to talk about things to work through them. And we need to keep talking about things - not working out positive ways to deal with minority stress and existential crises just leads to things like PTSD- something else that has been shown again and again to affect all kinds of minorities.
You wanna be "woke"? Turn off the tv
Reading magazines, shopping on Black Friday, watching celebrities give themselves awards, reality tv, local news, obsessing over Facebook or instagram likes- these are all distractions that might help you cope in the short term, but distractions that will ultimately keep you- keep US, from healing. Don't just submit, conform, consume and obey. (Watch the movie "The Live"!) Actively share your experience in any way you can - from debating people who disagree with you on Facebook to finding out more about out what you don't know, giving tv interviews about your experiences, therapy sessions, support groups, meeting with your elected leaders, writing op-ed pieces, blogs or creating music or other kinds of art- all of these are real ways to heal and foster change. These are all ways to be heard. Jennifer Lawrence is not Katniss Everdeen, and she isn't going to be the voice of any revolution. (Yay strong female lead, but boo white savior trope). No one is totally "woke" - it's an evolution- and we can all learn more about each other and how we can improve by seeing how our experiences compare and contrast.
We're all in this together.
Dr. Michael DeMarco is a licensed psychotherapist with offices in New York and Kansas City. Follow us on twitter @mytherapist