Vicarious Racism

When I was in high school I got into a debate with another student about the effects of racism. She had pointed out that, because of racism, property values decreased when a black person moved into a neighborhood. I argued that that was not true, and I worked at the Board of Realtors for our town so I should know.

But I didn’t know. How could I? I was a white part-time filing clerk who helped put together the weekly multiple listing booklets. The prices of the homes were occasionally perused, but I never analyzed the numbers. I didn’t know, but I desperately wanted to believe that that kind of systemic racism didn’t exist.

Experience and time disavowed me of that little piece of naiveté.

Flash forward a few decades and I am sitting at my table with tears of anger and outrage spilling over my cheeks as I looked at photos of a black man being murdered before my eyes. Even measured against the staggering number of tragic deaths in our country’s black community, George Floyd’s death was gut-wrenching and nauseating in the practically casual way it was carried out. It almost looked like the police officers were standing around discussing what to do after work. “Hey, Chauvin, you wanna catch a beer after?” “Sure, I’d love to…hey, will you look at that? I’ve been kneeling on this guy’s neck the whole time.” When I stood up from the table, my son asked me why my hands were shaking.

The next morning I woke up with a sore throat and felt like I had been hit by a truck.

Of course, my first anxious thought was that I had contracted Covid. After a few days, I knew that wasn’t the case. Then I saw a CNN article on vicarious racism and things started to click together.

What am I talking about?

If you haven’t seen this phrase batted around on the internet the last few days, vicarious racism is an emotional and sometimes physical response to witnessing a racist act. Past studies have focused primarily on the effect of vicarious racism on children and the communities that are hit the hardest by racial discrimination. However, data is now showing that simply being exposed to racism through the media can have a negative impact on anyone, regardless of skin color. And, not surprisingly, it has the greatest impact on our mental health, contributing to anxiety disorders and depression.

If you are like me, the last few months have been like riding a roller coaster through the bowels of hell; screaming through loops and just trying to hang on. I know many of us also fall into the category of empaths; we sense and soak up the emotions and energy of those around us. I don’t need to tell you just how much negative energy is currently swamping the world. Add in some vicarious racism and we are flattened. For our black community, the negative effects are likely to be a thousand times greater.

The hope…

Black Americans know that none of this is news. They have to live with the effects of racism daily. But, for white Americans, maybe this is the wake-up call. I’m a little middle-class white woman living in her little middle-class white bubble and racism still reached out and slapped me. If it can reach me, it can reach anyone. There are millions of white people in this country completely unaware that racism is affecting them too; hurting them, preying on their mental health. But what if they were made aware? What if the swirling fear and anger surrounding a virus-shuttered world, a virus that showed us that our way of life is fragile, was ignited by the horror of a casual murder? What if this is the straw, the catalyst that historians will look back on as the moment when racism lost its hold; when we all became aware and we all acted toward something better for everyone?

Maybe I am still just as naive as I was in high school, but I do believe it is possible.

(Photo credit: BSK on

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