The effects of racism are far-reaching and recent events have forced a long-overdue reckoning with America’s history of racial injustice. Let’s not allow the psychological consequences of racism to get lost in that conversation.
After seven million years of evolution, the diversity that defines the human race is still seen by some as a negative feature of our presence on the planet. Enough so that entire groups of people are rejected.
Are the differences between groups distressing to you? Are you resistant to change? There’s no greater embodiment of this than the issue of racism in America. And there’s perhaps no more misunderstood aspect of racism than its psychological consequences.
Racism is prejudice against a race based on unfounded beliefs. It is a psychological construct in which one group sees themselves as superior to another.
Racism is rooted in stereotypes. Racist thoughts manifest themselves in unhealthy, irrational ways and in discriminatory behaviors—both verbal and non-verbal—aimed at another group based on their skin color, language, or culture.
Racism has far-reaching consequences for all segments of society, with the most consequential burden being carried by the victims of such hate. Humanity has endured the effects of racism for generations. The economic and social impact is fairly well understood, but the psychological consequences of racism get far less attention.
Psychological Consequences of Racism
- Racism violates one’s right to be themselves: Underlying all racist ideology is the view that there is something wrong with being different, and this idea is reflected in all expressions of racism. Victims of racism are made to feel that they are not good enough, that their uniqueness is unacceptable. When this view is repeated in various forms over a period of time, it’s understandable why racism has been linked to increased rates of depression among minorities.
- Racism divides when we need unity more than ever before: Anything that pits groups against one another also prevents dialogue about the differences between those groups. This furthers the divide and reinforces negativity and inflexible views. Racism is an emotionally-charged topic and such an environment makes difficult conversations even less desirable to some. Without dialogue, there can be no healing and the negative emotions remain trapped in the psyche. The psychological consequences of racism continue to fester as a result.
- Hate and violence are consequences of racism: When one group decides that another group is unworthy—or worse, evil—it is inevitable that some of those feelings will boil over into verbal (hate speech) or physical (violence) expressions. This climate increases feeling of fear and hostility and research has demonstrated a powerful relationship between racism and self-reported anxiety.
- Racism can cause mental illnesses from an early age: Studies show that children in minority groups who experience racism also commonly suffer from self-esteem issues, have less resilience, and are more likely to experience behavioral problems and other psychological consequences.
- According to research, racism is a chronic stressor: Scientists consider racism to be a unique form of stress because its victims are not always aware of its presence. We obviously have no control over our skin color so victims of racism feel largely powerless to change their situation. These psychological consequences can trigger issues with one’s physical health. Long-term stress increases levels of inflammation in the body and this suppress immune function. This may explain why blacks have higher rates of certain chronic diseases.
The psychological consequences of racism are relevant to all Americans, if for no other reason than the impact that mental illness has on our economy and our healthcare system. To effectively address those psychological effects, we first need to have an honest conversation with ourselves. Are we in denial of racism? Do we contribute to the problem—even if indirectly—by perpetuating our own racist beliefs? We can start by considering our own differences before making a judgement about our neighbor’s.