When Andrea Redeau walks down the street in Portland with her father, people suddenly go into their houses and lock the doors.
Thoughts start racing through Redeau’s mind: Is it because she and her father are two Black people walking in an overwhelmingly white city? Or is it just that those people needed to go into their house right then?
But, Redeau said, the fact that she has to ask herself those questions at all show her there is a problem.
“That thought that I have to have is racism. I shouldn’t have to think that,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a system built up to where my brain goes to, ‘Because me and my dad are walking down the street, that white couple decided to go into their house.’”
These everyday instances of racism are known as microaggressions, and they can have an effect on mental and physical health. The term describes comments and behaviors that reflect stereotypes and negative assumptions about marginalized communities. Think: When someone compliments an Asian American person’s “good English,” even though it’s their first language, or when a white woman crosses the street when she sees a Black man.
Microaggressions are linked to increased depression, anxiety and chronic physical ailments like high blood pressure. Researchers have said the effect on mental health is like a “death by a thousand cuts.”
In Oregon, a majority-white state with a racist history, people of color can be deeply affected by the microaggressions they experience living and working in spaces dominated by white people.
Redeau is a therapist in Portland, and she often sees the effects on her clients. She started her counseling center Uniquely You to specifically treat racial trauma for Black people and other people of color.
‘That microaggression … is trauma’
Growing up in Oregon, Redeau was used to being the only Black person in all-white spaces. She knew that when she started working as a therapist, she would likely be the only person of color in her workplaces.
“Being in an all-white space, for me, is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable being the only brown person,” she said. “But it becomes normalized.”
Redeau recalls experiencing microaggressions regularly at work.
At one job, she remembers walking down the hall and looking at the photos of directors and managers at the agency. She realized that every single one of them was white. She began to question why she was working at an institution that had no one who looked like her, and whether she could ever succeed.
“Every time I would walk down that hallway, I would get more and more upset,” she said.
Redeau had to walk down the hallway multiple times a day. She would feel her body tense up as she read the names of the managers over and over again. Eventually, she told her boss that the lack of diversity within the company’s leadership bothered her.
Her boss had nothing to say in response.
That silence was hurtful to Redeau.
“All I needed in that moment was like, ‘That makes sense. That must be really hard. How can I support you?’” Redeau said. "When I am vulnerable with you, to say nothing or to minimize my experience is a microaggression.”
Distress and tension, like Redeau felt when she walked down the hallway, are common responses to microaggressions. Studies have shown that the more people of color experience microaggressions, the higher their chances of having mental health issues like depression.
It also takes a physical toll. Multiple studies have shown that racism can lead to high levels of stress, and more wear on the body. It’s been linked to higher rates of heart disease among Black Americans.
Redeau sees firsthand the impact that microaggressions have on her clients.
“Those microaggressions … that we experience send us into a fight or flight response,” she said. “And a lifetime of micro- or macroaggressions… what happens is we start to internalize that.”
‘Our foundation of Oregon is racist’
Oregon was founded as a whites-only state, through a series of Black exclusion laws that were designed to keep Black Americans from living here. The laws were rarely enforced, but led to Oregon becoming a majority-white state. To this day, Portland is known as the whitest major city in the United States.
“Our foundation of Oregon is racist,” Redeau said, and she said that history of racism can also contribute to racial trauma for the state’s people of color.
Black people living in Oregon experienced years of violence and oppression. Redeau points to the city of Vanport as an example: Because of racist real estate practices, Black Oregonians were essentially forced to live in a flood zone. In 1948, that city was destroyed by a flood, leaving the 18,000 people who lived there homeless.
“Those are traumatic experiences that live in the DNA of Oregon and play out every day,” Redeau said.
Growing up in Portland, Redeau saw the effects of red-lining and segregation play out in the make-up of the city and the divide between historically Black neighborhoods in Northeast Portland and majority-white neighborhoods in Southeast. Now, she sees it in the way gentrification has pushed many Black Portlanders to outer East Portland.
That history of racism affects everyday life for Black Oregonians, like when Redeau and her father walk down the street in white neighborhoods and worry about being racially profiled.
“I really try to teach my clients – that is trauma,” Redeau said. “It lives in your body, through your heightened senses, through your hypervigilance, through your fear. And if you are living in a fear response for 16 hours of the day, that’s going to impact … how you navigate the world.”
‘You get to determine what is racist and what is not’
Redeau said the first part of coping with the trauma caused by racism is to recognize it.
When Redeau’s clients describe experiences with microaggressions, they often wonder if they are misreading the situation, or if they did something wrong.
Redeau said that’s because people tend to get defensive when talking about racism.
“I think what happens in our culture is we don’t like to say, ‘It’s race,’” she said. “People love to say, ‘But, I’m not racist.’”
But Redeau wants her clients to know that the trauma they are experiencing is not their fault.
“It’s not us. We aren’t the problem. The problem is white supremacy,” she said.
That realization can help people to recognize and understand their trauma, Redeau said.
“When you experience racism, it is racism. It’s not because of another reason,” Redeau said. “You get to determine what is racist and what is not.”
Once people can recognize racism and the trauma it causes, they can focus on coping mechanisms, Redeau said. That can mean advocating for yourself when a microaggression occurs, or sharing how you are feeling in the moment. It could be talking to a friend as a distraction, or having a “sensory box” to ground you.
Those coping mechanisms can help people of color experiencing trauma to deal with it in a healthy way.
“It’s getting us out of a survivor mentality, and into a living mentality,” Redeau said.
This story is part of an OPB series on mental health care for Oregonians of color.