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Diversity and Race-Based Stress at MIT

On campus, MIT has started implementing a series of measures intended to further extend an atmosphere of respect and inclusiveness for all — and of greater mutual understanding among community members regardless of differences in ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

Listen as Cecil Webster, MD discusses race-based traumatic stress counseling available at MIT Medical.
Diversity and Race-Based Stress at MIT
Featured Speaker:
Cecil Webster, MD
Cecil R. Webster Jr., MD academic interests lay in weaving culturally competent psychiatry, employing and exploring film in psychiatry, enhancing ethnic and sexual minority (LGBTQ) mental health, and university mental health.

Learn more about Cecil R. Webster Jr., MD

Melanie Cole (Host):  On campus, MIT has started implementing a series of measures intended to further extend an atmosphere of respect and inclusiveness for all and of greater mutual understanding among community members regardless of differences in ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. My guest today is Dr. Cecil R. Webster, Jr, he is a Psychiatrist at MIT Medical. Welcome to the show, Dr. Webster. What do you see happening not only at MIT but around the country as far as race-based stress and the people that are feeling this very deeply and the stress is starting to get to them?

Dr. Cecil R. Webster (Guest):  Absolutely. It is a significant problem in our country at this time. So, I'm very happy that you asked this question. Race in America holds a lot of power. One of the biggest reflections of this power is a relative lack of discussion about race in America, and if we do discuss it, then it's often deeply uncomfortable for individuals and for groups, obviously. Certainly, we see reflections of this in our country in 2017. It only takes a casual observer to see the increase in number of race or ethnicity based crimes in America or active discrimination that may occur, whether it be in legal settings or in educational settings or other places. Essentially, we have something that has a lot of power in America right now and a relative lack of discussion about it. So, how does that translate here to MIT? Many of our students--grad students, post-docs, and other people--we've lived in a world that has had significant impact as it relates to race but paradoxically many people have not had places to discuss it. So, one of the things I hear very often from our students especially is that, "I feel very isolated. This is something that I can't talk to my PI about. My friends don't really get it." This is something that many MIT students have felt. So, not only the stress of having to deal with these national issues or local issues but also the fact that they don't have or don't feel like they have a space to discuss it with other people and have it be heard or acknowledged. Further, this is a university setting and MIT is a very high powered-institution which requires a lot of our students. There is often this perception or at least an emphasis of productivity verses acknowledging one's personhood whether that is the direct experience with somebody or an indirect experience with their friends. Just having the experience of having to neglect or feeling like we have to neglect a part of our personhood can be just stressful in of itself. On a national level, not being able to have these discussions about race in America leads to a lot of stress on the individual level, especially here in a university setting.

Melanie Cole:  What do you think you can do about this? Is it starting the discussions, Dr. Webster? Is it continuing these as a meeting with the individuals who do feel that they are the victims of this and having them be able to talk to somebody about some of these stressful situations? And, if it's about the conversation, how you do get people to start that conversation and to be civil with each other when discussing it?

Dr. Webster:  That's a great question and a question that many people have done a lot of work around. I don't think any of us have all of the answer but I think if we work with one another we can certainly get a lot closer. As it relates to MIT, there are two basic levels that we can work. One is on the individual level and the second is on the university level. Let me touch on the university level for a moment and then I'll go back to the individual level. On the university level we've had, for example, the recommendations by the Black Student Union and Black Graduate Student Association back in 2015 about what may be helpful in supporting our students of color here. The institute has taken this up and there are many new programs to include my own role here at MIT Medical in order to directly address the particular needs and unique needs of some of our populations here that are racial and ethnic minorities. Also, it's a part of the institute's mission. So, having a top down approach about cultural shift with the institute is also very important. So, having one's PI, for example, or having one's professor acknowledge and know that this is their responsibility to make sure that all of our students are well taken care of is something that the institute has done a lot of work towards. We obviously have a long way to go as an institute but at least we've gotten a good running start. On the individual level, it's a little more difficult and a bit more nuanced. This is something that we work very closely with our students that come here to mental health counseling; this is something that we work with other student groups or institute groups; and it's something that we work on a larger level with some of our providers here and staff and getting training. But, with our individuals the biggest thing I would say is not to isolate. Isolation kills our self-esteem. It kills our ideas of self-worth and with disconnection and isolation it can really feel like no one knows about you or your experience. So, one of the things that I always relate to other people is, you've got to talk about it. There are a wide variety of reasons why that's a very difficult thing in America, especially right now, but if we don't discuss it, it sort of sits there and festers and create more problems than we may need or can bear. Also, if you feel quite isolated discussing with other people can really acknowledge, "Okay. You know I'm not going crazy. This is my experience, other people have had it too." And so, just being able to acknowledge the difficulties in one's experience can be very important. Lowering our isolation can be very important. The second part that I often talk about on an individual level is making sure that we have the capacity for these discussions. Let's say, for example, you have been working in your lab for the last eighteen hours or you've had major problems and you haven't had any but four hours of sleep and somebody makes a comment about you, like "Oh! Are you here to pick up the trash?" Like somebody assumes that you're a janitor or something. If you're running on fumes, that may not be the best opportunity to have a discussion about how a comment  like that may impact your emotional well-being. But for example if you talk to a friend about it like, "I've had this weird interaction with one of my colleagues. They thought that I was a janitor." And this friend can say, "Oh, yes, the same person did that to me." Maybe it will be that you're in a better position to be able to talk with other people that can make a difference--for example, one’s PI or professor, or other things like that.

Melanie Cole:  Dr. Webster, along those same lines, because you're speaking about that ability to feel that other people are in this with you and that you're not alone and as far as like hearing all voices, do you think that the protests that are cropping up at universities around the country help people who are feeling this race-based stress to feel more included because the protests seem to support them? Or, what do you think of those big group gatherings? Do they make them more fearful or do they make them feel like somebody is hearing their voice and there are people willing to stand out and say this is wrong?

Dr. Webster:  It can have a variety of responses. One, it can ideally help people feel like there is a sense of community that have a shared set of values and goals and working towards a similar goal. So, in that way, these up cropping’s of demonstrations or sit-ins or what have you, it can be very, very good. On the other side of it, it can also help raise awareness for people that may not have any knowledge that there may be a difficulty or a problem in a certain area. So, that can also be very useful. Being visible is a great way for people to understand, sort of a more nuanced view or at least want to potentially discover more about what that issue may be. In a complicated way, hopefully that may lead more to individual discussions about what the goals are, what the problems are, and matters like that, generally speaking.

Melanie Cole:  Wrap it up for us, Dr. Webster. It's such an important topic--really important for people to hear and for people to feel that they are included and that we are all looked at as equals. So, wrap it up for us with your best advice about recognizing this type of race based stress that people are feeling not only at MIT but all over the country right now and what you want them to know as a psychotherapist about the ways that they can deal with this and specifically at MIT medical?

Dr. Webster:  I will say, in general, people of color often bear the burden of having others assumptions about them and not always being seen as a whole person. So, in general, I would say that making sure that we take care of our whole person is paramount. If that means taking care of your whole person is making sure that you get lunch, or if taking care of your whole person is making sure that you stay connected with friends or family, do that. The other part of it is making sure that we stay well connected with our bodies. So, paying attention to when we feel stressed or stressed out, or overwhelmed or anxious, or worried or excited or elated. All of those things are very important. Being able to reflect on how our bodies feel and how they are, those are great ways to give us guidance about what is happening in front of us. For example, if we don't acknowledge that your heart is racing and you're feeling flush and your hands are shaking, if you don't acknowledge that, then that may be harder for one to acknowledge that there's a difficult experience that they're experiencing now. Then the other thing I would say is making sure that we have the capacity to have these discussions and conversations. If you don't have it in that moment, then don't have it in that moment. That just leads to heated interactions but if you can purposely make sure that you have more emotional capacity to have a difficult conversation, that can be very important.

Melanie Cole:  Thank you so much for being with us today and for all your good work. You're listening to Conversations with MIT Medical and for more information you can go to That's This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.