• Racism is real and, as a person of color, it isn't your fault.
  • Racism is not always interpersonal or intentional, but it is still very hurtful.
  • Experiencing racism is troubling, and it takes a toll on mental and physical health and well-being.
  • People of color are encouraged to ignore racism or its existence because it makes people uncomfortable, but this makes it harder to protect against its negative effects.
  • Understanding the nature of racism and our reactions can help us have compassion for our human responses, more actively engage with the effects, and make choices about responses.

Experiences of racism are far too common in the United States. Following the 2016 presidential election, there has been an increase in bigoted rhetoric and hate crimes that target people of color. This compounds the effects of all types of racism—interpersonal, cultural, and institutional. While people of color can't stop racism from happening, they can choose responses that promote their own health and well-being.

Here, and in Part 2, we present an overview of racism and its related stress and other negative effects, as well as suggestions for how to cope effectively in the face of racist experiences.

The Breadth and Depth of Racism

Most people think of racism as a hateful, deliberate act of one person to another based on racial category(see note). But this ignores many other harmful experiences that people of color regularly encounter at interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels. And racism can be intentional and overt or unconscious and more subtle.

Note: Racism is not the only kind of oppression, and not the only kind of oppression that is on the rise in the current climate. People experience discrimination due to other aspects of identity such as religion, sexual orientation, class, or gender. In addition, many people hold several marginalized identities and experience intersecting discrimination. However, in this specific article, we are focusing on racial discrimination and marginalization.

When we think of racism we usually think of an explicit, hostile, interpersonal act. Here are two recent examples of explicit interpersonal racism that have happened since the election: Asian American people have been told to "go home," including a 13-year-old whose peer stated, "When they see your eyes, you are going to be deported." Latinx(see note) students on a school bus were told by their peers that "not only should Trump build a wall, but it should be electrocuted [sic] and Mexicans should have to wear shock collars."1

Note: The term "Latinx" is a gender-inclusive way to refer to people of Latin American descent.

But interpersonal racism isn't always deliberate or intentional. Research suggests that many people act on racially biased views even if they want to be unbiased2. Subtle racism, or microaggressions3, are experiences of racial bias that a white person might not intend, but that reflect subtle bias. People of color experience these as invalidating, insulting, or aggressive—even when the perpetrator may say, "but I didn't mean that!"

Recent examples of unintentional or subtle interpersonal racial bias include people of color being told they are overreacting by taking racist rhetoric seriously, or statements equating the "discrimination against Trump supporters" with racism against people of color—a comparison that erases centuries of legal exclusion of people of color with well-established economic, social, and health effects.

Racism Beyond the Personal

Racism is quite pervasive in our country, and it exists well beyond interpersonal and intentional actions. Research indicates that it is harmful regardless of its level or intention4.

Cultural racism is the bias that exists in our social values and norms; an example is the ongoing insistence on ignoring race and racism, sometimes called "color blindness5." Another example is accepting the lack of people of color in movies, television, and governmental or corporate positions. Cultural racism is reflected in the lack of social or media outrage in response to recent racist comments, including comments about Mexican immigrants as "bad" and Michelle Obama as ape-like. The lack of public outrage about violence against racial and ethnic minorities is also related to cultural racism.

Institutional racism is codified into our schools, legal systems, government, and other social institutions. Institutional racism includes racial profiling and sentencing inequities. Recent examples include the proposals to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, to establish a registry for Muslim Americans, and that the unconstitutional imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a valid precedent for such a registry.

Cultural and institutional racism can be harder to see when one is standing outside of targeted groups because they can seem normal or explained as something other than racism. But they often serve to normalize interpersonal racism. When bias is acceptable at the cultural or institutional level, it is easier for individuals to feel that expressing personal bias is acceptable. And because individuals make up cultures and institutions, changes in any one level can lead to a reinforcing cycle, such as the one we are currently seeing.

Racism makes people uncomfortable. It challenges the central American idea of meritocracy. And so people of color receive many social messages to minimize or ignore their experiences of racism, as well as the effects. But doing so may contribute to anxiety and other health risks. And this may impede the ability to make active and effective choices about coping and empowerment.

Negative Effects of Racism-Related Stress

When we(see note) experience racism, our bodies react with an immediate flight-or-fight response. This is a natural response in reaction to threats and racism is, indeed, a threat. This response may include increased blood pressure, sweating, or muscle tightness. We may feel fearful, anxious, hurt, threatened, or angry. We might "check out," withdraw, freeze, or confront the perpetrator with outrage or aggression. These are natural, automatic, human responses to potential threat.

Note: We use "our" and "we" throughout to highlight shared experiences of stress and anxiety, as well as shared experiences of people of color regarding racism – when we are describing racism, this "we" refers to the readers and the authors of color, because the white authors do not experience racism.

When we experience racism, the short-term responses that follow in the next hours or days often include increased fear, worry, and anxiety, and a heightened awareness and sensitivity. These responses may be accompanied by repeatedly thinking about the incident and anticipating its recurrence by "rehearsing" for the next time or beating ourselves up for not responding better. Or we may feel disconnected from our feelings, try not to think about the incident or anything related to it, distract ourselves with other activities, and avoid everything connected to it. We may experience these responses in turn or even at the same time.

Subtle Racism: Where's the Problem?

It can be particularly difficult to know how to respond to subtle racism because we perceive a threat that we have been taught to minimize. We may have all of the immediate responses above, and also feel confusion and uncertainty, self-doubt, and frustration. Anxiety, fear, and anger may be more diffuse and harder to identify, and we may even blame ourselves because we are aware that something felt bad, but we have more difficulty identifying that the problem is outside ourselves.

When racism is subtle, we may feel a greater push to discount the experience as racism and to minimize its effects. We may wonder if we are overreacting. This is related to social messages telling us that if someone says they don't mean to be racist, then we shouldn't feel bad. We receive lots of messages that we are overreacting unless we can demonstrate that the direct intention was hateful and hostile because of our race. This puts us in a bad position because we end up being expected to swallow the bad effects or we will appear too sensitive or angry.

Added Daily Stress

These responses are all part of racism-related stress, the stress that people of color experience in addition to the stresses of daily living. Because racial bias is so widespread and built into our culture and institutions, it means that people of color live daily with an additional burden of stress. This takes a toll on mental and emotional resources and has negative consequences for health and well-being.

People of color have heightened awareness and sensitivity because of the real threat of racism, are at greater risk of high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health, and have higher disease risk and rates of mortality. Racism is also related to increased social distance and cultural mistrust, as well as to lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, increased reactivity, and a range of mental health issues and symptoms that include psychological and emotional distress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts6.

Internalized racism can also be a detrimental consequence of living in a racially biased society. People of color encounter constant social hard-to-resist messages that those who look like them are less worthy of belonging and being valued. Research suggests that people of color often hold biases against themselves and their own group, seeing themselves as worthless or powerless, which also contributes to mental health risks.

How to Cope: Recognize, Resist, Reduce

In the post-election social and political climate, many people of color are experiencing an increase in racist experiences and related stress, and many feel anxious and fearful even if they have not experienced new or direct threats. This is natural: Increases in news stories, racial rhetoric, dismissal, and microaggressions remind us of our personal experiences and increase our sense of threat and pain.

Understanding racism and our responses can help us validate the very real, painful experiences of all types of racism, both direct and subtle. This can also help us resist internalizing subtle racist stereotypes, images, or beliefs.

Recognizing the realities of racism and racism-related stress helps us develop compassion for ourselves and others, as well as for our human responses to unjust and distressing experiences. This can help us reduce blaming ourselves, which often follows racist experiences when they are ignored or downplayed. When we understand the impact of racism, we can also notice our reactions as they occur, or soon after, helping to make our responses less confusing and overwhelming. This won't make painful responses go away, but it can make them easier to deal with and respond to. It can also help us make more active choices about how we want to take action in the face of racism.

Click here for Part 2 of this article - to learn about additional methods to manage racism-related stress.

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1 - These examples taken from the compiled list from the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

2 - 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.

3 - Pierce, C. M. (1970). Black psychiatry one year after Miami. Journal of the National Medical Association, 62(6), 471-473. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2611929/

Derald Wing Sue (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Wiley. pp. xvi. ISBN 047049140X.

4 - 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.

5 - http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4318136.aspx

6 - 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. http://www.integration.samhsa.gov/workforce/mental_health_disparities_american_indian_and_alaskan_natives.p

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.

Date of original publication:

Updated: January 25, 2017