Constant confrontation of professional racism makes professionals sick, experts say.
The severe nausea and stomach pains were daily, but they only appeared at a specific moment of the day: the time to go to work.
Juliana Gonçalves was unknowingly suffering from a process of mental breakdown, or burnout.
The source of the problem, she says, was the constant racist situations she perceived in her work environment because she was black.
“My interventions were ignored while colleagues who denounced the same fact were heard. I have heard of white colleagues at my same hierarchical level, with less academic qualifications and experience who earned much more than my salary,” says the 33-year-old journalist from Rio de Janeiro.
Juliana says this hit her like few other situations. “They were microaggressions as painful as they were overt acts. When you realize you have a racial problem, it hits you differently. It’s not just about working too hard, it’s about being seen as someone who doesn’t deserve to be there,” she says.
This left her with a constant fear of being fired and even led her to think she was hired “to meet a quota”. To compensate, she ended up making a habit of working overtime.
“I worked from 8am to 11pm to prove I deserved to be there, I had no set hours for my meals, I worked weekends and holidays. I was afraid to take time off. I neglected my health to try to prove that I was good”.
The symptoms Juliana experiences are common to burnout. Psychologist Lucas Veiga explains that this type of burnout is characterized as physical or mental exhaustion.
“Muscular aches or problems such as irritable bowel syndrome may also appear. Our digestive system is also responsible for digesting our emotions. And when we constantly suffer painful emotions that cause anxiety, this is also digested,” explains Veiga, who specializes in in racial issues.
But Juliana’s tiredness after continuous racist situations that have taken her beyond her limits – as well as the footballer Vini Jr., victim of prejudice at various points in his career and who threatened to leave his club, Real Madrid , after being attacked by the mob again a few days ago – has special characteristics and a proper name.
Psychologist Shenia Karlsson explains that racial burnout is a condition developed by Black people who face racism in their professional lives.
“The traditional concept of burnout just explains the Black experience, it’s not built on that experience,” says Karlsson, who specializes in diversity issues.
“Because racism is insistent, with numerous silencing mechanisms, the person ends up going into a state of burnout. Constant racism makes you sick.”
Hypervigilance and anxiety
A scientific review carried out in 2022 of more than 160 studies on burnout conducted by researchers at Harvard University in the United States showed, for example, that among doctors and medical students and professors, more black people (30%) are led to burnout than whites (18%), especially early in their careers.
According to the authors of the review, published in the Journal of Ethnic-Racial Disparities, the prejudice, discrimination and isolation reported by students were often associated with an increased likelihood of burnout.
Added to this is the constant state of alertness in which blacks live in everyday life, with everything that ends up leading to mental illness, explains Veiga.
“Moving around the city, going to a shopping center, to a supermarket, are situations full of racism and, therefore, with a high potential for stress. Where can I put my hand or not? Can I put my hand in the bag inside the shop? Can I bring my cell phone here? Will they think it’s a weapon? On rainy days can I go out with a large umbrella or should I buy a small one because they might mistake it for a rifle?”, exemplifies the psychologist.
This hypervigilance of oneself is a factor in a lot of anxiety, Veiga says, and causes symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking and shaking.
A very common reflex in the professional lives of people of color as they advance in their careers is that they feel a constant need to prove themselves and are always trying to protect themselves from racist incidents — a factor that exacerbates the possibility of developing burnout, says Carlosson.
“No one can bear to always be good, and never make mistakes. You have to consider the pressure these professionals have to bear. There is a high risk of getting sick. We cannot forget that young blacks in Brazil, for example, are at the top of the suicide,” says the psychologist.
According to data from the Ministry of Health, young blacks between the ages of 10 and 29 are 45% more likely to take their own lives than young whites of the same age group.
Karlsson adds that, in addition to the acts of prejudice themselves, the development of racial burnout increases when the victim feels they are not supported, as in the case of Vini Jr.
“You can yell, report, expose, but you’re always left alone, especially in predominantly white environments.”
Veiga agrees: “When you don’t get the support you need to report or the report you make doesn’t change that environment, it causes a lot of stress.”
Veiga says he usually sees patients in his office who report not only racial burnout but also PTSD caused by racial incidents.
The most common symptoms are nightmares, mentally reliving situations of prejudice and discrimination, insomnia, anxiety and panic episodes.
Juliana decided to seek medical help when she found herself unable to work.
“I started having anxiety attacks. I took a vacation and when I got back, I couldn’t attend a meeting because I panicked.”
Much like racial burnout, trauma from racism has its own aggravating factors, Veiga explains.
“In the most common cases, such as a car accident, the situation that caused the trauma will probably not repeat itself and the person will improve over time,” says the psychologist.
“In the case of racism, these situations continue to occur. Vini Jr. himself has suffered multiple very similar insults before. Every time this episode repeats itself, the person is affected again emotionally and psychologically.”
The recurring situations of racism and the anxiety caused by it tend to make the intention of leaving the job more common among victims, as evidenced by the Harvard study.
Juliana did just that. “After I left the company, I ‘miraculously’ stopped feeling sick,” she says.
“By breaking out of my cycle of violence, I regained good self-esteem, understood the value of my job and also improved health issues. I lost weight, normalized my glucose levels…breaking this cycle got me back to health “.
Lucas Veiga estimates that people of color may need specialized psychological care because they go through particular experiences caused by racial discrimination.
“Psychology training is still very whitened, and as important as knowledge of the most studied white authors is, they may not adequately embrace the specifics of mental health care for people of color, especially with regards to racial violence,” she says. the pro .
An example of this is the impossibility – at least at this moment – to guarantee that a black person will not experience situations of racism.
“Since an immediate end to racism is not believed to be possible in our generation, since there is no guarantee that Vini Jr. will never suffer from it again, in the face of this impossible, what are the possibilities?” he asks.
The expert indicates some ways to deal with this problem and its impact on mental health.
The first is to report the experience of racial violence and talk about it with close people who are part of a support network.
“One of the intentions of racism is that we don’t express ourselves. The image of the white player strangling Vini’s lion after denouncing racism on the pitch shows what happens in the daily life of a black person.”
Another important point is to take care of mental health, both with individual and group therapy.
“Have a thoughtful space not only to talk about racial issues, because our life is not limited to that, but to talk about desires, dreams and work on one’s self-esteem even in a scenario of prejudice,” says Veiga.
Finally, you need to find what the psychologist calls a “rest space.”
“Where and in which relationships do you feel you can rest? What are your spaces of refuge? Where your identity is valued, where your importance is not questioned and your place is recognized. It’s in the family, it’s in experience religious, is it among friends? These spaces are essential for the preservation of the mental health of the person of color”.