Herstory: How Restorative Journaling Can Help You Process Racist Incidents

By Jackee Holder, Leadership Coach

Content warning: this article discusses experiences of racism and discriminatory language

As we explored in our previous article in this series, restorative journaling is a powerful tool for Black, Asian and ethnically diverse leaders, and one that can help them process and reframe difficult situations, as well as set goals for the future.

In the second part of this series, I will draw on my personal experiences of restorative journaling and how I’ve been able to reflect on past incidents of microaggressions and racism. I also share two journaling prompts that can provide cathartic release.

In my own words: racism in higher education

I wish I had known about restorative journaling back when I was a teen. I can immediately think of one particular incident at college where using this approach would have been helpful.

I had started bunking off from my A-level law lectures (too many occasions of either being ridiculed or blatantly ignored by the white male lecturer had prompted my decision to opt out).

One day, my lecturer caught me as I was walking down the corridor after several weeks of avoiding his class. As we approached each other, it was too late for me to do a U-turn, so we came head to head. But rather than stop walking as we drew closer he carried on walking towards me, backing me up against the wall as he whispered in my ear, “Why don’t you go and get pregnant like all your black girls do?”

I spent the rest of the day slouching around in the common room trying to put on a brave face. I mentioned what had happened to a couple of friends, but we all felt powerless against a white male who clearly had influence.

I didn’t have an outlet for my feelings. Had I been an antelope that had escaped to a place of safety after being chased by a lion, I would have been able to shake off the incident. But instead, my feelings were internalised.

Restorative journaling: a powerful reflective tool

That day cost me my focus and drained my energy. I felt demotivated, and avoided classes I was doing well in. I became very weary of white men.

Months later at university, I barely spoke in seminars, not wanting to embarrass myself or face being ridiculed. For years, I didn’t use my voice in corporate settings. And I held back a large part of my personality in an attempt to stay safe.

If I had known about restorative journaling at the time, I would have been able to deal with the situation more effectively, because I would have had the chance to reflect on and process it. I would have been able to feel more positive about myself, and be confident in using my voice both professionally and personally.

As an adult, restorative journaling allows me to feel a deep sense of wholeness, and connect with my own thinking after situations like these. It’s not a magic wand, and in an ideal world racism in all forms would not exist. However, this is a powerful reflective tool we can use to care for ourselves during challenging times.

This approach is one we use at The Diversity Practice to help racially diverse leaders process situations, experiences and events, and I wish it was something I had utilised earlier in my life.

Restorative journaling prompts

You can use these prompts to process incidents of racism, microaggressions or discrimination. They enable you to think more clearly about a past situation, while naming specific emotions that are attached to this experience.

Five-minute writing prompts

To start your restorative journaling session, open your notebook and set your timer for five minutes. You can then use one of the following questions to guide your writing:

· What needs to shift for me to move on from this?

· What action must I take?

· Who do I need to get support from?

· What do I need to let go of that does not belong to me?

· What will I do or say the next time something similar occurs?

· What kind words do I want to leave myself with today?

There’s no right or wrong way to navigate these questions; just use your five minutes to write what comes to you.

The Epistolary technique, or ‘the unsent letter’

This method draws on the power of ‘the unsent letter’, and is an approach I use regularly with racially diverse leaders.

Writing an unsent letter can be beneficial in a number of ways. It can help you to work through difficult relationships and challenges, and offers opportunities for scripting (writing out what you wished you had said at the time) to prepare for a future conversation. It also allows you to gain closure from a past situation, and deactivates the stress you are still holding in your body.

It’s also a technique that I use personally. I have imagined writing a letter to the teen version of me, and giving her the reassurance she needed. I’ve now written about this incident in my restorative journal, which has given me a chance to remember new aspects of the story.

On the day the incident occurred with the teacher, I had gone into the college office to report what happened. I had forgotten that a friend had encouraged me to do this, so the writing helped me to see the evidence of my bravery. It confirmed that I did, in fact, take steps to do something about it.

This is why it can be really helpful to sit down in a quiet space and write a letter to anyone; they can be alive or dead, or it can even be a younger version of yourself.

Once you’ve written the letter, you can keep it somewhere safe, or get rid of it if you feel like it’s served its purpose.

Final thoughts

It’s clear that restorative journaling can be a powerful tool in reconnecting us with our strengths and positive abilities. It can help us capture how we truly feel, and gives us the tools to deal with past racial incidents and microaggressions, while helping us to move forward.

By using the techniques outlined in this blog post, you’ll be able to speak your truths and approach past events with clarity and purpose.

If you’re a Black, Asian or ethnically diverse leader who would benefit from executive coaching, take a look at our current offerings.

If you’d like to find out more about how The Diversity Practice can empower racially diverse leaders, reach out to us today.

We’ll be sharing more of our team’s insights over the coming months, keep checking back to see our latest thinking…