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Nov 6, 2023

369 The Invisible Racism

We All Deny, Featuring Drs. Manuel Sierra and Matthew May

Today we’re joined by Drs. Manuel Sierra and Matthew May on the sensitive topic of racism.

Manuel Sierra MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Idaho, one of the places where he grew up (he also spent time in Oregon). He was a classmate of Matt May during his residency training days at Stanford, and they remain close friends today.

Rhonda begins today’s podcast with this mail we received from Guillermo, one of our favorite podcast fans:

Guillermo asks: How do you respond to family or friends who make racist comments?

Hello, Dr Burns

Not sure if you have addressed this in any of the podcasts (I don’t recall it being a topic) but:

I was recently in a group chat with some cousins, and I read some really disappointing racist comments about a particular group. Many people ignored it (as I did) and a couple AGREED with the comments.

How can we balance not judging not just any people but our longtime friends and family about overtly racist actions/comments and the thinking that it is not the event but our thoughts that create our emotions?

I don’t care about “judging them” (in the sense that I don’t think it is my place to “change” their views) but just hearing/reading comments like this bothers me when they come from people close to me.

When I see it on tv or the internet, I don’t get affected because I feel it is beyond my control.

I don’t believe they will change their views so do I just remove them from my life? I apologize, the topic is too wide, but I’ve been thinking about this.

Sincerely grateful for all you do,


Manuel kicked off our answer to Guillermo by saying that he has been personally familiar with racism within families and communities, and says that he and Matt have talked about this topic “a lot.” He explained that:

Although I am proud of my Mexican-American heritage, I was born and grew up in Oregon and Idaho, where I’m currently practicing. I encountered considerable racial bias when I was a kid, and later in life as well. I clearly cannot speak for all Mexican-American people, I can only speak for myself and what I’ve personally experienced, and I am extremely aware of how difficult the current times are.

My grandparents didn’t teach my mom Spanish. She was a single mom, and we lived in a small town in Idaho. I also have family through marriage who live on Native American lands.

In grade school I began hearing jokes about Mexican Americans, and this was very awkward, painful, for me. I also got ridiculed for not speaking Spanish.  Even my grandfather asked me, “why aren’t you speaking Spanish?” There were also gangs where the racial bias got worse and frequently turned violent.

After learning more about Manuel’s experiences, we modeled various ways of talking to a friend or family member who has made hurtful racist comments. Manuel cautioned that it might be best to do provide the feedback individually, and not in public, so as not to shame the person. In addition, this can reduce the chance for social posturing and responding in an adversarial way.

Matt agreed and emphasized the importance of combining your “I Feel” Statement with Stroking. For example, you might say something like this, assuming the racial slur comment came from a relative or person you like,

Jim, as you know, you’re one of my favorite people, but I want you to know that when you said X, Y and Z, it really upset me, because it sounded like a put down to people who are (Mexican, Jewish, Moslem, gay, or whatever).

I (David) like this approach because it sounds respectful and direct, but not judgmental or condemning. Rhonda modeled an excellent alternative response which included this type of add-on: “And I’m going to request that you not say that again in my presence. “

I (David) would prefer not to add the directive statement at the end, which could, in theory, rankle some individuals with coercion sensitivity, because it might sound scolding. However, that’s just my take on it, and it’s not some kind of gospel truth. If you want to push your assertiveness and stick up for yourself, it might be effective, and was effective recently for Rhonda because the relative she said this to stopped making similar racial comments in her presence.

I would suggest ending any kind of response to the person who made a racial slur with Inquiry, asking them about their racial feelings as well as the fact that you are criticizing them. Do they feel hurt, angry, anxious, or put down? You might also ask something along these lines--Have they always had negative feelings about this or that racial or religious group?

Manuel described an experience in medical school when an attending doctor was supervising a group of medical students in how to do a particular medical procedure quickly, and said this to him, “You can be like a Mexican jumping bean!”

Then Manuel asked himself, “Should I say something?” Which of course incurs the risk of retaliation from an authority figure in a position of power.

Manuel mentioned that just because you’re working in a prestigious medical setting, this does not protect you from racial slurs. He described hearing people comment on how he and several Mexican-American classmates probably got into medical school because of their ethnicity, implying they weren’t sufficiently intelligent or on par  with their classmates.

He also mentioned an incident during his internship when he checked in on a patient wearing his white lab coat with stethoscope around his neck, and the patient asked him if he was there to pick up the trash and could he please get the doctor.  Manuel humbly replied that he could pick up the trash, and he was the doctor.

I asked Manuel how he felt when hearing these types of belittling and patronizing racist comments. He said that he felt annoyed, embarrassed, angry, put down, anxious, and alone.

He described one of his best friends growing up who was white. However, this fellow grew up poor as well, so they easily formed bond because they’d had similar class-based experiences. His friend sometimes lived in all-black neighborhoods and had also felt out of place at times, not accepted, and targeted.

I asked Manuel how he felt describing these intensely personal experiences on the podcast today, knowing so many people would be listening. He said, “It’s anxiety-provoking. My mouth is dry, my heart is racing, and I’m afraid I’ll sound like an idiot!”

We discussed the differences between being unintentionally or intentionally offensive with racist comments, and also mentioned the related topic of bullying which, of course, is intentionally hurtful. Manuel said that an example might be calling me names or saying terrible things about my mother, or making threats to hurt your family, or your mom. Often the bully is trying to get you to fight, so you’d be beaten up. The bully’s goal is to humiliate you in front of others and make you feel bad about yourself.

Manuel introduced us to some of the approaches he uses when working with kids who are bullied. I’d like to hear more on this topic but we were running out of time. We could address bullying on a future podcast with the same crew, since Manuel and Matt both have a lot to offer on that sensitive and exceptionally challenging topic. Let us know if you’re interested in hearing more.

The response to bullying has to have two dimensions. First, your thoughts, and not the bully’s statements, create all of your moods. So, you can use the Daily Mood Log to record and modify your inner dialogue. The goal would be to support yourself and not buy into the notion that you are somehow “less than” or a loser or coward just because someone is trying to bully and exploit you in a sadistic fashion.

The cognitive work is based on the idea that ultimately, only you can bully yourself. The words of the bully cannot affect you unless you buy into them. But then it’s your own beliefs that are the source of your emotional misery.

Second, your verbal response to the bully can also be helpful to you, or it can serve to make the situation worse. But these techniques, based in part of the Five Secrets of Effective Communication, can be challenging to learn, especially during the heat of battle, so considerable practice is vitally important.

The goal of changing your thoughts as well as the way you respond is not to blame you for the problem, but to give you some reasonably effective coping skills, perhaps similar to the verbal karate I mentioned in my first book, Feeling Good.

At the end of the podcast, we did a survey among the four of us on whether meanness and aggression and exploitation is one of the inherent and genetically based drives in human nature, along with our more loving impulses and drives, or whether humans are basically good and all the hostility and killing is the result of adverse influences along the way. There was a sharp difference of opinion, and you can listen to the podcast to find out what everyone thought!

We were, of course, just speculating, as this question is partly scientific and partly philosophical.

I asked Manuel how he felt at the end of the podcast, and he said he was feeling a lot better. He was powerful and informative, and I was grateful he could appear with our team and teach us from the heart today! I hope you enjoyed today’s program as well.

Thanks for listening!

Manuel, Matt, Rhonda, and David