BYU CAPS office explores ways to help students navigate racial stress

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The BYU Counseling and Psychological Services Office is working to help the campus community understand the reality and impact of racial stress on those who experience it. Louise Wheeler, an assistant clinical professor and psychologist in the CAPS office, defines racial stress or racial trauma as “the idea that experiencing racism has an impact on emotional wellbeing and physical health.” The impact of racial stress can look like depressive or anxious symptoms, she said. (Made with Canva by Ingrid Sagers)

Ethan “Etwon” Thatch is a Vietnamese BYU student from southern California studying cybersecurity. Thatch’s parents immigrated from Vietnam and were baptized as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California. Thatch said it’s been difficult at times to get used to the differences in diversity between his community in southern California and the BYU Provo community.

“Knowing that when I go to my classes, I’ll be one of or the only minority student has made going to BYU harder,” he said.

Thatch experienced racial stress during his freshman year while he attended a Writing 150 class. The teacher had started a conversation regarding food. While the class discussed certain foods, a white male student turned to face Thatch and laughingly said something along the lines of, “you eat these foods with chopsticks, not forks, right?”

Thatch remembers being extremely taken aback. He had already felt conscious of being the only non-white student in the class and is still confused about why the student felt the need to single him out as culturally different. Thatch said he doesn’t believe the student was being overtly racist, but he still remembers how this micro-aggression made him feel.

“I don’t think there’s often real hatred in people, but there’s so much ignorance everywhere,” he said.

Racial stress isn’t, by nature, something most BYU students, faculty and staff face as part of daily life. One effort the BYU community is making in spreading awareness is Racial Stress Awareness Week. Racial Stress Awareness Week is a seminar-style event put on by the BYU Counseling and Psychological Services office.

The event aims to educate the campus community about the effects of and possible solutions to racial stress. Racial stress can be experienced overtly or in more subtle ways like micro-aggressions in everyday interactions.

Louise Wheeler, an assistant clinical professor and psychologist in the CAPS office, defines racial stress or racial trauma as “the idea that experiencing racism has an impact on emotional wellbeing and physical health.”

Hoku Conklin, another CAPS assistant clinical professor and licensed psychologist, said the external aspects of racial stress include social events, environment and historical or systemic forms of racism. 

There are also internal aspects of racial stress, which include physical, emotional, behavioral and psychological reactions. “The recurrent experience of racism, which is the reality of BIPOC students on our campus, can impact our ability to focus, our self-esteem, our relationships with others, and the way we interact with the world,” Wheeler said.

“BIPOC” stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color and is a commonly used term that became more widespread on social platforms during 2020.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

Solutions to racial stress

After not enjoying his BYU experience for most of his time in college, Thatch said he’s finally “found refuge” in his Asian ward. Every student and ward leader is from a different Asian country, and that has helped Thatch find a place where he feels completely comfortable and accepted.

Thatch hopes all minority students can find their own places of refuge during their time at BYU and encourages a level of respect between all races. “The value of talking about racial stress and our experiences is that hopefully people will listen and be willing to be accepting of our differences, not condescending,” he said.

Wheeler said she believes the value of Racial Stress Awareness Week is in helping minority students of color increase their awareness of their experience, find community and learn ways to cope with difficult experiences.

Awareness and understanding are fundamental to growth, healing and change, Conklin said. “I believe awareness and understanding cannot come without a willingness to get close to others, learn about their lives, and see outside of our own experience.”

Educating oneself is another solution to racial stress. Mckenna Joseph, a white woman, has been married to her husband, Finley, for a little over a year. He was born in Haiti and has lived in the United States for most of his life; they met at BYU-Idaho and recently had their first child.

“If I’m going to be married to a Black man, I need to have some understanding of what a Black man goes through in America,” Joseph said.

She expressed gratitude that her husband hasn’t experienced extreme prejudice but said he continues to deal with micro-aggressions or assumptions. Joseph said she believes understanding her husband’s life experiences are different from hers creates a level of trust and unity.

Joseph wants to be aware of what her daughter may experience and build her up because, as a Black woman, the world will try to tear her down. “I can’t ignorantly raise a child who isn’t the same race as me.”

Joseph said she understands racial stress and trauma are very intertwined and has recently begun researching generational trauma and its effects. “In my study, I’ve come to realize history has consequences people of color deal with today. A ripple effect began with the inhumane historical treatment of people of color,” she said. 

Racial stress in Church culture

Mauli Junior Bonner is the director and producer of the film, “His Name is Green Flake,” and co-author of the children’s book, “Child of God.” His extended African American family is active in producing music and films in connection to the Church.

Bonner produced “His Name is Green Flake” as a way of telling a little-known side of Church history. According to the film website, the film “is inspired by the true story of enslaved pioneer and Latter-day Saint Green Flake. His courageous cross-country journey to prepare the way for the Saints was integral to the ‘Mormon Migration’ and the settlement of Utah.”

“I love being able to uncover and tell these stories. Not in a way that creates distress, but one that allows us to talk openly and honestly about history,” Bonner said.

Bonner wanted the film to promote greater understanding of the trials and journeys for members of African descent. He said it was startling to learn more about these early Church members who were enslaved by other members. These Black faithful pioneers donated to and helped build the Salt Lake Utah Temple, but couldn’t set foot inside or be sealed to their families.

“Early Black pioneers are pillars of strength when we are weak or question our faith,” Bonner said. “If I’m ready to walk away from my faith in Christ, I remember they endured the worst kind of experience someone can possibly have in America. But they still kept their faith in Christ’s church.”

(Video by Ingrid Sagers)

Some may feel the topics of race or social justice, both in and out of Church context, have flooded their news feeds and social media after various events during 2020. Bonner believes 2020 unearthed trauma which had been pushed down or minimized.

“I know for me, as a Black man being raised in America, I’ve always been told by parents, teachers and coaches on how to be Black in America,” he said. “I’ve been told ‘you can’t be like this or you can’t act like that. You’ll be seen like this, you’ll be received like this.'” 

Being mentored on how to be the best version of a Black person in America has become a part of the Black experience. Society is at a place in time where white people are being told how to be better white people, Bonner said.

This may be the first time many white people experience a version of racial stress. “They’re now being told, ‘don’t be like this, don’t act like this, don’t say this.’ Those types of messages are nothing new for the Asian, Black, Latin or any other minority communities,” Bonner said.

Having conversations on diversity, race and prevalent social issues takes courage and deliberate effort, Bonner said.

Conklin thinks the way Church members talk about race can vary greatly depending on the person they are talking with. “From Church leadership, the message is unequivocal that all of God’s children are divine and should be treated with dignity and respect,” Conklin said.

Thatch expressed gratitude for Church leaders, saying he believes the Church is doing a great job at bringing more and more diversity and recognition to all cultures. However, it seems as if the Church’s messages aren’t reaching the people they’re meant for, he said.

“I think we need more time and effort on our part; starting from the bottom to the top of the Church, members need to be educated on how to appreciate different cultures,” he said.

Thatch supports CAPS’ racial stress awareness efforts because spreading awareness of the stress people of color are experiencing in a Church-supported learning environment should be a priority for everyone, he said.

Conklin wants Racial Stress Awareness Week to remind others how important it is to recognize that while all people are children of God, they also have very different experiences, histories and realities. These are influenced by race, ethnicity and other forms of diversity, he said.

“Learning about and celebrating diversity not only helps us to learn about others but also ourselves. It is difficult to see outside of our own experience when we don’t have others to help us reflect,” he said.

The next Racial Stress Awareness Week will take place during Winter 2022 semester, Wheeler said. The CAPS office anticipates Racial Stress Awareness Week will be an annual event.

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