Black Therapist Shares Advice For Coping With Racism Abroad

By Parker Diakite


There’s nothing more liberating than packing your bags and jet setting to see the world. Studies have shown that traveling can help to relieve stress, make you healthier, and enhance creativity.

But every now and then, there are some situations that will hurt you to the core when you’re abroad. Those situations are something people of color know all too well. It’s either that look of disgust when you walk into a store, being stared at, called out your name, or worse.

RELATED: New Report Shows It’s Time To Start Talking About Racism In Europe

One of the best things about traveling is that it allows you to see the immense beauty the world has to offer. Unfortunately, the downside of traveling can be certain encounters with some people that will remind you just how ugly the world can be. 

RELATED: What It Means To Be Black In Puerto Rico

Instead of letting these incidents ruin your entire trip, Travel Noire spoke to Psychotherapist Sonja Harrison who gave advice to Black travelers trying to cope with dealing with racism abroad.

Travel Noire: What is your body’s initial response after dealing with a traumatic incident such as racism?

Harrison: Race and all traumatic responses are processed by our central nervous system as a threat to our safety and survival.

Our automatic responses to threats are to connect, flee, fight, or freeze.

For example, what that could look like is if I’m in a store and I experience racism, in the form of being ignored or watched, the connect response would be to seek help. I might ask to speak to the manager to communicate what I am experiencing with the hope that they would provide some relief and some corrective action.

Fleeing might look like leaving the store.

Fight could be some form of aggressive engagement, like words.  Freeze is just that […] like a loss of words and action

Travel Noire: What should you do immediately after the encounter?

Harrison: If you can, you want to leave the space or the environment where the racism occurred. You want to step outside and step into a neutral space. Take some deep breaths, orient to your environment by noticing where you are because our unconscious brain is always surveying for safety.

We want to help our nervous system register that we are out of harm’s way. If you’re traveling with a trusted companion, touch their hands or look into their eyes. Research shows that touch and presence of those who we love can help calm us down when we’re feeling unsafe. We want to communicate how the experience made us feel –not so much of what we think – but how we felt and consider what we need to feel better. That could be taking a walk, sitting in a park, buying some water […] whatever is soothing or calming for us.  We also want to be kind to ourselves just to help our nervous system reset and recover from the trauma.

TN: That leads right into my next question. What are some ways to cope until one can get back home to see their therapist?

Harrison: Racism is something that black people, especially, encounter often and that includes micro-aggressions, too. In general, you want to feel safe and connecting with people who help [engender] that feeling is important.

Ideally, you want in-person connection, but FaceTiming or hearing the voices of loved ones and people that we care about will also work.

Exercise is also important because it releases endorphins and pinned up energy that may be a result of trauma energy.

TN: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers that I didn’t ask that you feel is important?

Harrison: Yes, and that’s that therapy is an essential part of self-care. Finding a therapist who is a good fit is important in helping us navigate traumatic experiences such as racism.

When you’re looking for a therapist, trust your nervous system to what you’re body is telling you. If you need a therapist of the same race, ethnicity, gender, or any other particular characteristic, search and find them.

If the therapist you find is not a good fit, don’t stop your search and just continue. Make your self-care a priority.

You can learn more about ways to cope by clicking on Sonja’s website.

Travel Noire

Parker Diakite

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