HealthUnderstanding Racism and Its Related Stress Can Help People of Color Cope...

Understanding Racism and Its Related Stress Can Help People of Color Cope with Negative Effects

  • Racism, a distressing reality, absolves people of colour of any blame.
  • While racism may not always be intentional or personal, its effects remain deeply painful.
  • Experiencing racism poses significant challenges and takes a toll on mental and physical health and overall well-being.
  • Individuals from racial minority groups are often encouraged to dismiss or deny the existence of racism because of its potential to make others uncomfortable, thereby hindering their ability to protect themselves from its harmful effects.
  • By understanding the nature of racism and our instinctive reactions, we can foster empathy for our innate human responses, actively confront its effects, and make informed decisions about our subsequent actions.

Racism pervades the United States, with a surge in bigoted rhetoric and hate crimes targeting people of color following the 2016 presidential election. The multifaceted nature of racism, encompassing interpersonal, cultural and institutional dimensions, exacerbates its harmful effects. While people of colour cannot eradicate racism, they do have agency in choosing responses that promote their own well-being and health.

The scope and complexity of racism

While racism is commonly perceived as explicit, deliberate acts of hostility directed from one individual to another based on racial categorization, it disregards the numerous other damaging encounters that people of color routinely face across interpersonal, cultural and institutional realms. Racism can manifest itself as both deliberate and overt actions, as well as unconscious and subtle biases.

Note: It is important to recognise that racism is not the only form of oppression, nor the only one on the rise in the current socio-political climate. Discrimination based on other aspects of identity such as religion, sexual orientation, class or gender is also widespread. Moreover, many people have multiple marginalised identities and face intersecting forms of discrimination. However, this article focuses specifically on racial discrimination and marginalisation.

When discussing racism, the dominant notion often focuses on explicit interpersonal incidents of hostility. Recent examples include the alarming mistreatment of Asian American individuals who were subjected to comments such as ‘go home’, with a disturbing case involving a 13-year-old who was told, ‘If they see your eyes, you will be deported’. In addition, Latinx students have experienced derogatory comments from their peers on a school bus, suggesting that President Trump should not only build a wall but also electrify it, accompanied by the idea that Mexicans should wear shock collars.

Note: The term ‘Latinx’ is used as an inclusive reference to people of Latin American origin, and includes all genders.

When it comes to racism, it is important to recognise that not all instances are deliberate or intentional. Surprisingly, research suggests that even people who strive to be impartial can still exhibit racially biased behaviour by unconsciously succumbing to deep-seated prejudices. These subtle forms of racism, often referred to as microaggressions, manifest as experiences of racial prejudice that may not be intentional, but reflect an underlying bias. What may be deemed innocuous by a white person can be experienced by people of color as invalidating, insulting or even aggressive, despite protestations of innocence from the perpetrator.

Recent events highlight unintentional or subtle interpersonal racial bias and reveal the complex nature of this pervasive problem. People of colour are often dismissed when they raise concerns about racist rhetoric, and their reactions are dismissed as overreactions. Equally concerning are statements that equate discrimination against supporters of former President Trump with racism against people of color, disregarding the centuries of systemic exclusion that have deeply affected their socio-economic status, social standing and overall well-being.

Racism goes beyond personal interactions

It is important to recognise that racism permeates society far beyond interpersonal and intentional actions. Extensive research has demonstrated the harmful nature of racism, regardless of its level or intent.

Cultural racism is a bias embedded in our social values and norms. An illustrative example is the persistence of a phenomenon known as “colour blindness”, where the existence of race and racism is deliberately ignored. Another manifestation of cultural racism lies in the acceptance of the under-representation of people of color in various domains, be it movies, television or influential positions within governments and corporations.

Disturbingly, cultural racism is evident in the lack of social or media outcry in response to recent racist comments, including derogatory remarks about Mexican immigrants and racially insensitive comparisons involving Michelle Obama. Similarly, the collective silence surrounding acts of violence against racial and ethnic minorities can be attributed to cultural racism.

Institutional racism is rooted in the codification of biased practices within our educational systems, legal frameworks, governmental bodies and other social institutions. This form of racism includes practices such as racial profiling and sentencing disparities. Recent examples of institutional racism include proposals to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the suggestion of a registry for Muslim Americans, and the invocation of the unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a valid precedent for such a registry.

Cultural and institutional racism may be less visible to those outside the targeted groups because they often appear normalised or rationalised as something other than racism. However, they often serve to normalise interpersonal racism. If prejudice is considered acceptable at a cultural or institutional level, individuals may feel justified in expressing their own personal prejudices. Since individuals make up cultures and institutions, changes at either level can perpetuate a reinforcing cycle that exemplifies the current state of affairs.

Racism by its very nature disrupts the prevailing American notion of meritocracy, causing discomfort among individuals. Consequently, people of color often receive societal messages encouraging them to downplay or dismiss their experiences of racism, along with the resulting consequences. However, ignoring these experiences can contribute to increased anxiety and other health risks, and hinder their ability to actively confront and counteract racism while pursuing personal empowerment and well-being.

The harmful effects of racism-related stress

When individuals (see note) are exposed to racism, their bodies instinctively trigger a flight-or-fight response. This physiological response is a natural defence mechanism against perceived threats, and racism is undeniably a significant threat. This response often manifests as increased blood pressure, sweating or muscle tension.

Emotionally, individuals may experience fear, anxiety, hurt, a sense of being threatened or anger. Some people may withdraw or retreat, while others may freeze or confront the perpetrator with indignation or aggression. These reactions, which stem from a deep-seated instinct for self-preservation, are innate and universal human responses to potential threats.

Note: To respect and honor the perspective of shared experiences of stress and anxiety, as well as the unique experiences of people of color regarding racism, we will continue to use “our” and “we” throughout the text. Please note that when referring to racism, this “we” refers specifically to readers and writers of colour, as the white writers do not directly experience racism.

When confronted with racism, our immediate reactions often involve heightened levels of fear, worry and anxiety, accompanied by a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity. In the hours or days that follow, these reactions may be accompanied by persistent thoughts about the incident and a tendency to anticipate its recurrence, leading to mental “rehearsals” for future encounters or self-criticism for not responding more effectively.

Alternatively, we may experience emotional detachment, deliberately avoiding thoughts and discussions related to the incident, seeking distraction through other activities, and distancing ourselves from anything associated with the incident. These reactions may occur sequentially or simultaneously, further complicating our emotional landscape.

Identifying the challenges of subtle racism

Responding to subtle forms of racism can be particularly challenging, as we are often faced with a threat that we have been conditioned to downplay. In addition to the immediate reactions described above, confusion, uncertainty, self-doubt and frustration may also arise. The diffuse nature of anxiety, fear and anger can make them harder to identify, leading to a tendency to blame ourselves, even when the source of the problem lies outside ourselves.

In the face of subtle racism, there is a greater tendency to dismiss our experiences as racism and to downplay their impact. Doubts may arise about whether we are overreacting. This tendency is influenced by societal messages that suggest that if someone claims not to have racist intentions, we should not allow ourselves to feel hurt.

We are inundated with messages that we are overreacting unless we can definitively prove that the intention was explicitly hateful and racist. As a result, we find ourselves in a precarious position, forced to suppress the negative effects of racism because acknowledging them may lead to being labelled as overly sensitive or angry.

Added Daily Stress

These aforementioned responses collectively contribute to what is known as racism-related stress, an additional form of stress that people of color endure alongside the everyday challenges of life. Given the pervasiveness of racial bias deeply embedded in our culture and institutions, people from marginalised racial backgrounds carry the weight of this additional stress on a daily basis. This chronic stress depletes mental and emotional resources and has a detrimental effect on overall health and well-being.

People of colour exhibit heightened awareness and sensitivity due to the tangible threat of racism, putting them at greater risk for elevated blood pressure, cardiovascular health problems, increased susceptibility to disease and higher mortality rates. Racism also correlates with increased social distance, cultural mistrust, lower self-esteem and lower life satisfaction. It also leads to increased reactivity and a wide range of mental health problems, including psychological and emotional distress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

Living in a racially biased society also leads to the pernicious effects of internalised racism. People of colour are constantly bombarded with social messages that undermine their sense of belonging and worth. Research suggests that people from marginalised racial groups often internalise prejudices against themselves and their own communities, perceiving themselves as lacking in value or power. This further contributes to mental health risks and challenges.

Coping Strategies: Awareness, Resistance and Reduction

Amidst the current social and political climate, people of color are facing an escalation in racist experiences and the resulting stress, even if they have not encountered direct threats first-hand. It is natural that increased news coverage, racial discourse, layoffs, and microaggressions trigger memories of personal experiences and intensify feelings of threat and distress.

Understanding the dynamics of racism and our individual responses can validate the very real and painful experiences associated with all forms of racism, whether overt or subtle. This awareness also enables us to resist internalising subtle racist stereotypes, images or beliefs.

Recognising the true nature of racism and the distress it causes allows us to develop compassion for ourselves and others by acknowledging the human responses that are triggered by unjust and distressing encounters. This in turn reduces the self-blame that often follows instances of racism when they are ignored or minimised.

By understanding the profound impact of racism, we can observe our reactions as they unfold, enabling us to manage them with greater clarity and resilience. Although these strategies do not eradicate painful reactions, they enable us to manage them more effectively and to make conscious choices about our actions in the face of racism.

Click here for Part 2 of this article – to find out more ways to deal with racist stress.


  • These examples taken from the compiled list from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
  • E.g. see Gaertner, S. L. & Dovidio, J. F. (2005). Understanding and addressing contemporary racism: From aversive racism to the common ingroup identity model. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 615-639.
  • Pierce, C. M. (1970). Black psychiatry one year after Miami. Journal of the National Medical Association, 62(6), 471-473.
  • Derald Wing Sue (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Wiley. pp. xvi. ISBN 047049140X.
  • Alvarez, A. N. Liang, C. T. H., Neville, H A. (Eds) (2016). The cost of racism for people of color: Contextualizing experiences of discrimination. Cultural, racial, and ethnic psychology book series. American Psychological Association.
  • See, for examples:
    Abe-Kim, J., Takeuchi, D. T., Hong, S., Zane, N., Sue, S., Spencer, M. S., . . . Alegría, M. (2007). Use of mental health-related services among immigrant and US-born Asian Americans: Results from the national Latino and Asian American study. American Journal of Public Health, 97(1), 91-98. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.098541
  • Alvarez, A. N., Liang, C. T. H., Neville, H A. (Eds) (2016). The cost of racism for people of color: Contextualizing experiences of discrimination. Cultural, racial, and ethnic psychology book series. American Psychological Association.
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2010). Mental health disparities: American Indians and Alaska Natives.
  • Broman, C. L., Mavaddat, R., & Hsu, S. Y. (2000).The Experience and Consequences of Perceived Racial Discrimination: A Study of African Americans.Journal of Black Psychology,26(2), 165-180. DOI:10.1177/0095798400026002003
  • Carter, R. T., & Reynolds, A. L. (2011). Race-related stress, racial identity status attitudes, and emotional reactions of Black Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 17(2), 156. DOI: 10.1037/a0023358
  • Chou, T., Asnaani, A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2012). Perception of racial discrimination and psychopathology across three US ethnic minority groups. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(1), 74. doi: 10.1037/a0025432
  • Cokley, K., Hall-Clark, B., & Hicks, D. (2011). Ethnic minority-majority status and mental health: The mediating role of perceived discrimination. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 33(3), 243-263.
  • Landrine, H., Klonoff, E. A., Corral, I., Fernandez, S., & Roesch, S. (2006). Conceptualizing and measuring ethnic discrimination in health research. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 79-94. DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9029-0
  • Liu, C. & Suyemoto, K. L. (2016). The effects of racism related stress on Asian Americans: Anxiety and depression among different generational statuses. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 7, 137-146.
Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston

Karen L. Suyemoto, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She also directs the graduate program in Transnational Community and Cultural Studies. Dr. Suyemoto's research and teaching emphasize social justice, focusing on race, racism, power, and privilege. She integrates cultural responsiveness and social justice into psychological training, research, and practice. As a licensed psychologist, she provides consultation, training, and supervision in diversity and anti-racist therapy. Dr. Suyemoto has received numerous awards, including recognition as a White House Champion of Change and the Joan H. Liem Award for Outstanding Doctoral Mentoring.

Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston

Dr. Tahirah Abdullah is an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on the impact of racism and discrimination on mental health, ethnocultural factors, barriers to help-seeking, and stigma of mental health treatment among Blacks in the U.S., with the goal of improving mental health services and reducing stigma in the Black community.

Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston

Dr. Lizabeth Roemer, a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, focuses her research on how individuals respond to unwanted emotions, particularly in anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder. In collaboration with Dr. Susan Orsillo, she developed an acceptance-based behavior therapy with mindfulness strategies. Their work includes coauthored books on anxiety and mindfulness. Dr. Roemer adapts this approach to different contexts to help individuals face distress and anxiety, exploring cultural and contextual factors while promoting coping and resilience in the face of systemic inequities.

Doctoral Student at University of Massachusetts Boston

LG Rollins is a doctoral student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. LG’s research focuses on the role of mindfulness and emotion regulation on empathy and interpersonal connection, particularly across perceived differences. LG’s clinical work focuses on adapting and disseminating evidence based mindfulness and acceptance based interventions for college students.


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