After centuries of trauma and oppression, the impact of racism in the United States is finally being brought to light. Racism is systemically ingrained in our society and has led to generations of race-based trauma. While the racist activity of today is often less blatant and overt than in the past, technology has provided an outlet for both blatant and subtle racism via cybervictimization and bullying.
Cyberbullying and cybervictimization are terms that can be used interchangeably to describe acts of harm towards others online. However, cybervictimization may also refer to the longer-lasting consequences as a result of cyberbullying, such as race-based trauma. Cyberbullying is often mistakenly thought to be a problem exclusive to youth. However, it occurs across all age groups, perhaps even more so in racially-motivated ways.
Cyberbullying is often mistakenly thought to be a problem exclusive to youth. However, it occurs across all age groups, perhaps even more so in racially-motivated ways.
What is race-based trauma?
Race-based trauma is a form of complex, internal traumatic responses resulting from overt, covert, and systemic acts of racism. Race-based trauma is chronic and tends to include experiences such as hypervigilance, fear, feeling “on-edge,” irritability, depression, trouble concentrating, and distrust. These responses have been learned as a means of survival in a society where people of color are not treated with the same value as the majority.
Recent events have extubated traumatic experiences. With the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, Black individuals are being reminded of how unsafe society can be for them. Oftentimes, emotional reactions are dismissed or invalidated by those in positions of privilege. Other times, the idea of systemic racism is denied altogether. This invalidation, known as gaslighting, adds fuel to fire of race-based trauma.
For a more in-depth look at race-based trauma and how to cope, see my previous post, 6 Ways to Cope with Race-Based Trauma.
How cyberbullying plays a part
The internet provides many outlets for overt and covert racism to occur. Overt racism includes acts such as verbal abuse, racial slurs, and acts of violence. Covert racism includes subtle acts to subvert, distort, restrict, and deny racial minorities access to societal privileges and benefits. This can include microaggressions, which by nature are difficult to detect as they include subtle messages and behaviors that highlight racist attitudes. These often involve harmful assumptions about black people or the denial of equitable opportunities.
With the veil of anonymity and sense of safety behind the screen, individuals have an easier time displaying both overt and covert racism, even in actions that are deemed socially unacceptable by today’s standards. Acts of cyberbullying can occur on an individual, group, or systemic level.
With the veil of anonymity and sense of safety behind the screen, individuals have an easier time displaying both overt and covert racism, even in actions that are deemed socially unacceptable by today’s standards.
Common acts of race-based cybervictimization and cyberbullying include racist memes and jokes, overt abuse and racist remarks directed towards an individual of color, racist remarks directed towards an ethnicity or racial group, derogatory comments or jokes made about victims of racism (i.e. jokes about the death of George Floyd), white supremacist groups and forums, sharing inaccurate or biased information against people of color, defamation, denial of racism, censoring the voices of people of color, and invalidating expressions of pain and injustice from people of color.
Race-based cybervictimization can be isolating and disempowering. It often removes the ability to defend oneself, and the perpetrator may receive no consequence for their actions. The acts of racism may also be publicized.
The power imbalance, lack of defense, and lack of consequences of cyberbullying are as profound as the overt racism from decades prior. Research is currently underway that suggests that Black people are especially prone to race-based trauma and cybervictimization. Compared to other ethnic groups, Black people may be the most likely to experience acts of race-based cyberbullying. Black people may also experience the strongest traumatic effects due to it. Research also shows that the effects of cybervictimization can be as profound as any trauma leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The power imbalance, lack of defense, and lack of consequences of cyberbullying are as profound as the overt racism from decades prior.
In general, cyberbullying can lead to serious mental health consequences. These can include:
Those who experience cyberbullying are also more likely to drop out of school or experience challenges at work.
Cyberbullying does not need to be directed at an individual. As mentioned, it can happen on a group or systemic level as well. Gaslighting is a major problem when dealing with these levels of cybervictimization. For example, let’s say you come across a racist joke or meme posted by a friend on social media. This is a form of cyberbullying and cybervictimization. Perhaps this joke upset you, and you express your feelings about it to this person. The person may respond with something similar to, “It was just a joke” or “you’re being too sensitive.” This is a form of gaslighting, which further contributes to race-based trauma. This contributes to an individual questioning their lived experience, authentic emotions, and having to manage legitimate levels of outrage out of concern about how they may be perceived.
The responsibility to end racism shouldn’t fall on People of Color
Ending systemic racism is the responsibility of those in positions of privilege. It’s the responsibility of white people to hold themselves and each other accountable for acts of racism. Anti-racist sentiment is just as easy to accomplish online as racist sentiment, and white people should be actively anti-racist. At the same time, it is also the responsibility of white people to avoid acting as a “white savor.” White saviorism is when a white person serves in a helping role for a person of color in a way that is also self-serving or attention-seeking, making the white person appear heroic in some form. Elevating the voices of People of Color and allowing the space for self-empowerment is crucial.
It’s the responsibility of white people to hold themselves and each other accountable for acts of racism.
Elevating the voices of People of Color and allowing the space for self-empowerment is crucial.
Coping with cybervictimization
One problem that people of color, especially women, have to deal with is the idea of always having to be “strong.” Well-intentioned people may try to empower people of color by saying something like, “You’re so strong” in situations of adversity. While it may be true, it can also be exhausting to constantly live up to the idea of being a strong person. This can also be a harmful race-based trope of the “strong black woman.” While the intention is to empower the individual, it can oftentimes take away the reality and space which allows individuals to be a full human, that is allowing for moments of strength and vulnerability.
It also contributes to and plays on the fact that black women have had to be strong figures within the family unit due to direct and indirect impacts of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration. Kind sentiments also do little to change systemic racism. It is OK to be tired of always having to be strong and it’s OK to not always be strong.
Here are some tips for coping with cybervictimization:
1. Recognize and avoid self-blame or internalization
Cybervictimization is always the fault of the perpetrator.
When we are on the receiving end of cybervictimization, we often become more critical of ourselves. If bullying occurs on an individual-level, we may wonder if we did something to deserve it, or regret standing up for ourselves. Cybervictimization is always the fault of the perpetrator. Being aware of this practice, and stopping ourselves when we notice it, can reduce the internalization of these experiences.
2. Remove the harm from your environment.
With the importance of technology and social media in the modern world, this task can be challenging. It is OK to delete victimizing “friends” from our account, create new social media accounts, or take a break from social media completely. It’s helpful to reflect upon what would make your online environment the most comfortable and plan accordingly. How you remove the harm from your online environment is up to you.
How you remove the harm from your online environment is up to you.
3. Find social support.
Connecting with supportive friends and family is absolutely vital to well-being. It is even more important when dealing with trauma of any form.
Connecting with supportive friends and family is absolutely vital to well-being.
Online support groups can also help. DailyStrength.org has support groups dedicated to a wide range of issues, including cyberbullying. Connecting with a counselor is also helpful.
4. Connect with empowering organizations and online communities.
There are many organizations dedicated to empowering people of color. To find an organization, see the articles 28 Organizations that Empower Black Communities, 50 WOC-led Organizations in the U.S. That We Should Support, and 11 Hispanic and Latino Organizations Everyone Should Know.
Finding a therapist
When searching for a therapist, it is important to find someone who you feel is a valuable ally. If a therapist is of a different racial or ethnic background than you, it is good to explore their stance on anti-racism. It is also OK to inquire about what they have done to fight against racism. It is important to feel comfortable with your therapist, so don’t be afraid to ask.
It’s important that you feel heard, seen, and understood in your lived experience by your therapist.
It is also OK to request a therapist of the same racial or ethnic background as you. Being able to voice your needs means that you empower yourself in your journey to improved emotional wellbeing. After all, the relationship and rapport you have with your therapist is key to your success in therapy. It’s important that you feel heard, seen, and understood in your lived experience by your therapist. Finding the right therapist means finding an unconditional source of support and genuine connection.
The Bottom Line
You deserve to feel heard, be valued, and feel safe online. Many resources are available to combat race-based trauma and cybervictimization, and you never have to deal with the trauma alone. While technology has allowed cybervictimization to occur, it also provides avenues and opportunity to fight against it.
Your Turn: Have you experienced cyberbullying due to your race or ethnicity? How did you handle it? Share what helped you to cope in the comments below.