Someone you care about may be experiencing racism

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about appears to be struggling with racism.

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This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You are concerned that someone you care about is experiencing racism. Perhaps they feel stuck or unable to change the situation and seem sad or angry because of this hopelessness or perceived powerlessness in their lives. Maybe you notice them behaving in a way that’s not normal for them, such as having more frequent fluctuations in mood or turning to unhealthy coping strategies. Or maybe you are noticing increased fear around how they believe others see them, a lack of self-esteem or negative self-talk about not feeling valued. They might seem overwhelmed or hypervigilant in certain life situations, causing them to want to withdraw from the world.

What do you need to understand?

‘Racism’ is being treated differently or unfairly because of one’s cultural background, skin colour or ethnicity . When someone is made to feel like an outsider, this puts stress on their mental wellbeing. It is stressful to not feel included or valued by others, as this threatens human’s instinct to survive. Over time, exposure to exclusionary treatment can lead to chronic stress which then can injure the brain and body leading to other conditions such as anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and serious physical health concerns such as diabetes and heart disease. When someone is experiencing racism, they can also be experiencing subtle traumatic stressors every day, from being avoided in public or being a target for others, to unfair treatment within institutions such as their work or school. When people feel they don’t have any control over their future in addition to not feeling valued, this can be very stressful and emotionally draining.

What do you need to consider?

Experiencing racism is traumatic for an individual, as it threatens their sense of being. Being made to feel excluded raises alarms within a person to defend themselves and makes them feel constantly unsafe in their own environment and with others. Be patient when supporting someone who has experienced racism, as it’s likely hard for them to trust others and be curious as to what makes them feel safe and supported. Pay particular attention to ensuring you have a non-judgemental mindset when engaged in conversation. Be there to witness and hear the individual’s experiences, without jumping to problem solving or trying to explain away their experience – it’s not your place to explain to someone how they should feel.1

Engaging in a supportive conversation?

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Be careful not to let your own hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual, play a role. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. These can make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and approach the conversation with the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my own desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?


Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them – but don’t add your own assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed that you seem frustrated at times, and I’m concerned. Did you want to talk about how you’re feeling?”
  • “I noticed that when we go out, you seem uncomfortable in your surroundings. Tell me what’s going on.
  • “You’ve been mentioning feeling less hopeful about life. Tell me more about this. What’s behind this?

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person’s open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this happens, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to come back to you and share when they’re ready.

You could say:

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. The individual may not be ready to discuss the issue yet, but you’ve shown you care. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • "Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through."

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation


Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t feel their needs are being met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing you feel powerless and hopeless in making any changes in life. Is that right?”
  • “It sounds like being outside the safety of your home is feeling overwhelming and unsafe for you – is that what I’m hearing?”
  • “You’ve shared that you are not feeling confident in yourself and actions. Is that correct?”

Highlight strengths

Mention and highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “Thank you for sharing these difficult feelings around how racism has affected you. This is something we will address together, and I am here to support you

Identify support

Identify what support the individual is open to and help connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist they pursue support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address the feelings of being made to feel like an outsider and someone who isn’t valued as a result of racism. What can I do to support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other person’s life.

Create an action plan

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Offer a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to take action on. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend is experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences:

  • PSAC Union: A variety of themes to support learning on anti-racism for everyone.
  • CMHA: Better understand how you can support as an ally.
  • WSMH Inclusivity and discrimination: Avoiding potential discrimination and promoting inclusivity can help strengthen our workplaces, creating positive environments in which all employees can thrive and succeed.

1. ReachOut Australia. (n.d.). Understanding a different culture. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from 

Contributors include.articlesJessica GrassMary Ann Baynton

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