Racism and Discrimination

Shelly P Harrell & Gesenia Sloan-Pena. Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology. Editor: Yo Jackson. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2006. 

Racism can be defined as a system of oppression based on racial/ethnic group designations in which a pervasive ideology of racial superiority and inferiority provides the foundation for structural inequalities, intergroup conflict, discrimination, and prejudice. Racism, like all systems of oppression (e.g., sexism, classism, heterosexism/homophobia, ageism), is based on power asymmetries such that the dominant group is granted unearned privileges, such as respect and esteem, social validation and affirmation, opportunities and rewards, freedoms and safety, and greater access to valued societal resources.

Racial discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes are the building blocks as well as the products of racism. Stereotypes are cognitive overgeneralizations, the labels associated with different groups. Prejudice is an attitude formed about a group of people without adequate evidence. When prejudgment is added to stereotypes, racial prejudice exists. Racial discrimination is differential treatment and behavior based on race. When action is added to racial prejudice, discriminatory behaviors are manifested. Racism is a systemic process. When power asymmetry is added to racial discrimination, the system of racism is operating.

Racial discrimination involves the expression of beliefs and attitudes rooted in racism. Discrimination includes major civil rights violations and illegal activities such as hate crimes, racial harassment, racial profiling, and job discrimination. Racial discrimination also includes everyday racism—day-to-day differential treatment such as a clerk or security employee following a member of a minority group around a department store with suspicion, a teacher calling on students of color less frequently, or the single racial/ethnic minority person in a group being marginalized or left out of a conversation. Discrimination can be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. The result of the behavior is racial discrimination, regardless of motivation, intentionality, or consciousness.

Racism and discrimination are manifested at multiple levels, including cultural, institutional, interpersonal, and individual. Racism and discrimination at the cultural level are reflected in the ideology of European American supremacy and can be seen in the cultural expressions and products of a society, such as art, literature, science, cinema, values, and standards of beauty and attractiveness. Racism and discrimination at the institutional level are expressed through the structures, policies, and practices of societal institutions such as the criminal justice, education, health care, political, and economic systems. Systematic disparities between racial/ethnic groups on outcomes reflect institutional racism. Racism and discrimination at the interpersonal level can be seen in interactions between individuals and relations between groups. Racism at the individual level is expressed in the beliefs, attitudes, and discriminatory behaviors of people.

Racism and the Field of Psychology

The ideology of racism has been embedded in psychological theory and research since its inception and continues to influence what is considered normal or abnormal, healthy or maladaptive, functional or dysfunctional. Within the field of psychology, racial difference studies on characteristics such as intelligence, aggression, alcohol use, and sexuality have contributed to the perpetuation of widespread beliefs in the superiority of European Americans, at worst, and European Americans as the normative standard, at best. Identifying healthy psychological functioning has historically been through the observation of the cognitive, affective, and behavioral status of heterosexual European American men. Differences from this norm have traditionally been viewed as indicating deviance or deficit.

Scientific racism is the use of research to demonstrate the innate inferiority or superiority of different racial groups and provide evidence to support racist ideology. Classification of human beings according to race is a creation of science, not of nature. However, scientific racism assumes biological determinism, that there are consistent and innate biological differences between racial groups. For nearly two centuries, attempts have been made by science to support racism through racial differences research. Psychological research has contributed to scientific racism and has been used to try to bring credibility to beliefs in the inferiority and deviance of targeted racial/ethnic groups, particularly African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans.

Racial/ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented in the field of psychology. Although there has been some progress in the number of psychotherapists and psychology professors of color, the field continues to have insufficient knowledge about the psychological functioning of or effective interventions relevant to racial/ethnic groups that are not European American. Furthermore, although knowledge is increasingly being accumulated through multicultural research, it is not effectively disseminated to current professionals, nor to students entering the field of psychology.

Forms of Racism

In the psychological literature, the term old-fashioned racism is used to refer to explicit racial discrimination associated with the core beliefs about the inferiority and deviance of the targeted racial/ethnic group. It is associated with an endorsement of negative racial stereotypes, racial hostility, hatred, and strong advocacy for separation of the races. However, a solid body of research within social psychology suggests that contemporary manifestations of racism are more common than old-fashioned racism. These include symbolic racism, modern racism, and aversive racism.

Symbolic racism refers to racist beliefs that are socialized early in life but are acted out symbolically through a political issue, such as resistance to affirmative action or opposition to busing, rather than through direct advocacy for racial segregation. Modern racism also involves the displacement of racist beliefs onto abstract sociopolitical issues with a simultaneous lack of awareness of racist feelings.

Aversive racism is characterized by racial ambivalence that includes an aversion to outwardly expressed racist attitudes and a simultaneous discomfort with racial/ethnic minorities. It involves the embracing of egalitarian values, rejection of racial stereotypes, and a low frequency of overt discriminatory behaviors. However, there exists a great deal of anxiety and underlying negative feelings toward the target racial/ethnic group that is expressed in subtle, indirect, and rationalizable ways. Unintentional discriminatory behaviors are expressed that benefit European Americans and disadvantage racial/ethnic minority groups, perpetuating the continuation of power asymmetries and social disparities. Symbolic and modern racism are associated with a conservative political orientation, and aversive racism is associated with a liberal political orientation.

Racism also has been examined in its relationship to psychopathology. Early studies attempted to identify a racist personality and focused on the study of the authoritarian personality as a characterological structure that included the devaluing of out-groups considered to be inferior. Racism also has been conceptualized as itself a diagnosable disease or disorder characterized by maladaptive defenses to manage anxiety. The anxiety is rooted in underlying guilt and shame regarding the existence of racism, as well as societal and individual silence and collusion. It is suggested that cognitive dissonance emerges from the national identity of “freedom and justice for all” existing alongside an awareness that interpersonal and institutional racism continue to perpetuate disparities and despair. Rationalization, minimization, projection, intellectualization, and denial operate to distort the reality of racism, which is too painful to confront, and create functional impairments in multiracial settings.

Among the most intense behavioral manifestations of racism are hate crimes and discriminatory violence. Physical attacks, verbal assaults, vandalism, harassment, and other hate-motivated acts of violence continue to be perpetrated against people of color and immigrant groups. Hate crimes against persons or property include words and/or actions that are intended to intimidate, humiliate, or do harm to members of a targeted group. Hate crimes reflect contempt and disdain for members of the group, with specific motivations of sending a message, teaching a lesson, or making an example of one or more individuals. Research suggests that racially motivated hate crimes are most often triggered by a sense of territorial threat; interracial marriage, dating, or sex; perceived cultural encroachment; or anti-immigration sentiments. Hate crimes create a social atmosphere characterized by a lack of safety and protection for members of targeted groups.

The phenomena of internalized racism and intragroup discrimination have received more theoretical than empirical attention in the psychological literature. In an attempt to protect themselves against racism, members of targeted racial/ethnic groups reject, put down, distance from, and exclude members of their own group while idealizing, seeking the approval of, and giving preferential treatment to European Americans. Colorism is a form of internalized racism in which darker-skinned members of a group are considered inferior and less attractive, and have less status, than lighter-skinned members of the group.

Racism and Its Targets: Understanding Contexts and Experiences of Racism

Racism and discrimination exist in multiple life domains, including education, employment, health care, housing, legal, leisure, commerce, media, finances, law enforcement, and interpersonal relationships. In the psychological context, racism and discrimination can be subjectively experienced as stress. Racism-related stress refers to the race-based transactions between people and their environments that emerge from the dynamics of racism and are perceived to tax individual and collective resources or threaten well-being. Sources of racism-related stress can be personal, vicarious, collective, or transgenerational.

Personal racism-related stress includes those experiences in which the individual is directly involved. These can be episodic events (e.g., being denied an apartment, being the victim of a hate crime), chronic conditions of living (e.g., toxic pollution reflecting environmental racism), or everyday racism experiences (e.g., microaggressions, such as being addressed with a racial epithet or being mistaken for a maid or bellboy in a hotel). Vicarious racism-related stress involves witnessing, observing, or hearing about others’ experiences with racism and discrimination. Collective racism-related stress is the awareness of power asymmetries and systematic outcome disparities (e.g., health, employment) in which members of one’s racial/ethnic group have less access to resources or more negative outcomes. Transgenerational racism-related stress includes the knowledge and ongoing vestiges of historical traumas (e.g., slavery, colonialism, internment, genocide) that have been passed down through generations.

Exposure to racism is related to a number of individual and contextual variables. These include specific racial/ethnic group membership, geographic location, gender, age, social class, sexual orientation, skin color, accent, generational status, and racial composition of the setting. For example, racism will be experienced differently by a 25-year-old recently immigrated Pakistani man in New York City, a 70-year-old Japanese woman in a small California town, a 40-year-old Mexican American female attorney in suburban Chicago, and a 16-year-old African American boy in a predominantly European American high school in rural Connecticut.

A number of instruments were developed in the 1990s to assess racism and discrimination experiences. The most commonly used include the Index of Race-Related Stress, the Schedule of Racist Events, the Racism and Life Experience Scales, the Perceived Racism Scale, the Experience of Discrimination Questionnaire, and the Everyday Discrimination Scale. Overall, these instruments have very strong psychometric properties. They are most appropriate for research contexts. However, there are assessment, forensic, and psychotherapy applications, as well. Research using these instruments has found significant relationships between racism experiences and a number of psychological and health outcomes.

Multiple Effects of Racism and Discrimination

Early studies conceptualized racism as leaving an inevitable mark of oppression on the psyche, leading to rage, low self-esteem, deviance, and psychopathology. Although attention to the damaging effects of racism was an important step, these early approaches reinforced a deficit-oriented perspective on the mental health of racism targets. The 1990s brought an increase in empirical studies on racism as a source of stress, and the resources and strengths that emerge in efforts to cope with living in the context of racism and discrimination.

The effects of racism and discrimination emerge in multiple areas of functioning. These include emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning, role performance, interpersonal relationships, identity, mental health, physical health, and spiritual well-being. The toll of the cumulative stress caused by episodic and chronic exposure to racism can last for years. However, strengths can also develop as part of the broader effects of racism and discrimination. Some of the most strongly supported effects of racism and discrimination on its targets are as follows:

Emotional. Emotional reactions to racism and discrimination can be immediate or long-term.

Immediate emotional reactions can include fear, anger, confusion, sadness, humiliation, and shame. Longer-term emotional styles can also develop in reaction to cumulative experiences of racism and discrimination. These include bitterness, hostility, numbness, irritability, apathy, pessimism, suspiciousness, and agitated hypervigilance. These emotional styles represent adaptations to living in the context of racism, and their ultimate function is protective. However, prolonged exposure to racism, for someone who may have existing psychological vulnerabilities and inadequate resources, can contribute to increased risk for psychopathology, violence, or self-destructive behaviors.

Coping Strategies and Styles. The effects of racism and discrimination can include the development of specific coping strategies, as well as general coping styles. Racism-related coping strategies are designed to manage the experience of racism and discrimination. These behavioral strategies can be grouped broadly according to their function, including changing the situation, changing oneself, soothing emotions, distancing or distraction, obtaining support, or collective social action. Racism-related coping styles develop over time and reflect a more general orientation to living in the context of racism and discrimination. Coping styles can include one or more of the following: activism (e.g., nationalistic, multicultural, antiracism), within-group affiliation, within-group rejection and European American assimilation, color-blind individualism, bicultural compartmentalization, protective isolation and avoidance, racism consciousness and vigilance, seeking European American approval, hostile separatism, and passive invisibility.

Racism-related coping fatigue can develop when significant psychic, emotional, and physiological energy is expended in attempts to manage racism. Reduced effort and less goal-directed behavior may result. Distancing behavior risks increased isolation and the exacerbation of negative effects. Apathy, depression, and decreased motivation present barriers to achievement and limit opportunities to develop both intragroup and intergroup supportive relationships.

A frequently misunderstood coping style is within-group affiliation. Targets of racism and discrimination may self-segregate with similar others as a defense against being rejected, misunderstood, or treated badly. This self-segregation can serve the adaptive function of affirming one’s identity, humanity, worth, and place of belongingness in the larger context of racism and discrimination. This within-group connectedness and validation is sometimes wrongly assumed to go hand in hand with rejecting other racial groups, particularly European Americans.

Physical Health. Racism and discrimination can contribute to negative health outcomes. Much of the research on racism and physical health has focused on hypertension. Although social support may serve as a buffer, chronic exposure to racism has been associated with an increase in cardiovascular reactivity, with blood pressure remaining elevated even after the interaction has subsided. Knowledge of an incident or even imagining a racist situation seems to have the same adverse physiological consequences as experiencing it directly. Racism experiences have also been associated with increased cigarette smoking, obesity, and poor health care behaviors, increasing the risk for numerous negative health outcomes.

Mental Health Outcomes. More frequent and intense exposure to racism and discrimination increases risk for psychological distress. Studies have found experiences of racism to be related to depression, trauma-related symptoms, anxiety, relationship dysfunction, aggression, and substance abuse. These negative effects may be mediated by variables such as positive racial socialization, healthy racial identity, sociopolitical awareness, strong social support, sense of community connectedness, and access to racism-countering, affirming resources. These mediators can reduce feelings of marginality, mitigate against internalized racism, protect self-esteem, and provide alternative sources of validation.

Academic Role Functioning. Racism and discrimination can have negative effects on academic performance. Students of targeted racial/ethnic groups may have fewer visible role models of academic excellence, may internalize expectations of low achievement from school personnel, or may be tracked into non-college-bound programs of study. They also may not have the benefit of family members who can provide strong academic socialization (e.g., study tips, homework assistance). In addition, psychological reactions to stereotypes may interfere with academic performance. The phenomenon of stereotype threat suggests that when there is an awareness of expected low performance, actual performance may suffer.

When faced with situations in which a negative stereotype may potentially be confirmed, the subsequent increase in anxiety can contribute to the individual performing below his or her actual ability.

Identity and Self-Concept. Personal experience with racism and discrimination, or even witnessing public examples, can have a variety of effects on racial identity and self-concept. Racial identity can be compromised if one internalizes racism and develops negative beliefs about one’s own racial group. Racial identity can be strengthened as a result of racism experiences when support, validation, and a broader sociopolitical understanding are present. Although retreating from racial identification may give an illusion of protection against racism and even facilitate the accomplishment of individual goals, self-hatred and internal turmoil can result. In addition, rejection of one’s racial group can lead to collusion with the perpetuation of racism.

Resilience and Strengths. Racism and discrimination create adverse circumstances and have been connected to a number of negative outcomes. However, adversity provides opportunities to build strengths. Characteristics such as endurance, perseverance, passion, expressiveness, optimism, gratefulness, creativity, compassion, collectivism, spirituality, and faith can emerge. Racism and discrimination present contexts in which larger societal affirmation and encouragement may be minimal and social devaluation of one’s group may be widespread. Positive psychological well-being in these contexts requires the development of inner strength and resilience in the face of ongoing negative messages about one’s value and worth.

Racism and Discrimination in Multiple Contexts

Efforts have been made to address the problem of racism and its effects across many contexts.

Racism in the Clinical Context

Racism and discrimination manifest in the clinical context in five primary ways: (1) unequal access to services, (2) clinical integration of racism experiences, (3) manifestations of the dynamics of racism within the therapeutic relationship, (4) assessment and treatment planning, and (5) use of interventions designed to provide protection and coping resources.

Unequal Access to Services. At the macrosystem level of analysis, there are systematic disparities in mental health services with respect to both quality and quantity. Racial/ethnic minority groups are less likely to receive (1) intervention at the optimal therapeutic level (e.g., number of sessions), (2) state-of-the-art psychotherapy techniques, (3) treatment from more experienced or highly trained therapists, and (4) treatment most appropriate for the presenting problem. In addition, racial/ethnic minority clients are likely to be overmedicated or inappropriately medicated and subject to waiting lists or unavailability of immediate services, and they may not receive treatment until a disorder is at more advanced stages and thus more difficult to treat. It is not clear, however, to what extent disparity in services is a function of socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, or an interaction of both. Disentangling these factors is complex, because one of the larger societal impacts of racism is the disproportionate number of many racial/ethnic groups of color living in poverty or below the poverty line. Reducing the manifestations of racism at the macrosystem level can include advocating for sufficient quantity and quality of mental health services in culturally diverse communities, hiring experienced therapists with demonstrated expertise and effectiveness with culturally diverse groups, and encouraging supervision, consultation, and in-service training. Working to increase the presence of racial/ethnic minority psychologists and supervisors also can reduce incidents of racism and discrimination.

Clinical Integration. Clients from historically oppressed racial/ethnic groups have almost invariably been exposed to racism in one form or another (e.g., personal experience, vicarious experience, collective experience). A comprehensive understanding of a client’s psychological world requires therapists to consider racism as a mental health risk factor. Overlooking the role of racism in case conceptualization risks missing critical elements of a client’s life story and psychological functioning. Therapists should listen for and adequately assess a client’s history of racism experiences, perceptions and attitudes about racism, and degree of internalized racism, as well the racism-related dynamics of current contexts and the styles and behavioral strategies that have been developed to cope with racism.

It is recommended that therapists be aware of their own discomfort with, minimization of, or avoidance of the topic of racism. Therapists should be cautious of interpreting the client’s disclosure of racism experiences as avoidance of more important psychological issues or as a reflection of transference. A therapist’s own agenda with respect to racism can also result in imposing interpretations of racism on clients. Misguided interpretations create empathic failures and risk damaging the therapeutic alliance by invalidating a client’s life experience, decreasing trust and the client’s sense of emotional safety, and silencing the client on an issue that may occupy a great deal of psychological space.

Dynamics of Racism in the Therapeutic Relationship. Interpersonal racism dynamics can emerge in the interaction between therapist and client. Awareness of racism-related countertransference is important and can be manifested in numerous ways. Therapists may relate to racial/ethnic minority clients in a condescending and patronizing manner or communicate disrespect, deviance, and inferiority. Therapists also may use the interracial therapy dyad as an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not racist. The need to have the client’s approval, or the avoidance of any conflict with a racially different client, may indicate the therapist’s underlying anxiety. Racial/ethnic minority therapists with a high degree of internalized racism may project their hostility and self-hate onto clients. Alternatively, when both client and therapist are members of racial/ethnic minority groups, there is a risk of overidentification, a need to rescue, protect, or join with the client in an us-against-them orientation.

Therapists also should be aware of racism-related transference phenomena. These include overcompliance and deferring to the therapist, behaviors that are intended to disprove racial stereotypes, and hostility toward the therapist. Racial/ethnic minority clients with high levels of internalized racism may seek to please a European American therapist and separate themselves from their own group. It is important for therapists to be cautious and resist accepting these manifestations of internalized racism. The therapeutic relationship can be damaged when a therapist takes a client’s racial anger personally or reacts defensively.

Assessment and Diagnosis. In psychological assessment with diverse racial/ethnic groups, test construction, norming procedures, and the psychometric properties of the assessment tool are important considerations. Assessment instruments should be looked at carefully for their validity with the specific group and any indications of adverse impact. Caution in the interpretation of test scores, consideration of alternative explanations for behavior, and attention to base rate data and contextual variables can help reduce the impact of racism in the assessment process.

Diagnostic bias can be associated with racial attitudes and stereotypes. Clinicians may overpathologize racial/ethnic minority clients or interpret behavior as deviant when a client is not understood within a cultural context. Alternatively, clinicians may also underpathologize racial/ethnic minority clients and label a problem behavior as cultural in an attempt to not be perceived as racist. In both cases, the client is not receiving appropriate treatment. In addition, clinicians may associate a particular diagnosis with a particular racial/ethnic group and assign that diagnosis prematurely, frequently, and/or incorrectly (e.g., African Americans and paranoid schizophrenia).

Racism-Related Clinical Interventions. Therapists can facilitate the development of a strong racial identity through creating an evaluation of self that is not based on the norms of the majority, reframing racism experiences that are self-blaming, and modifying cognitive attributions that promote internalized racism. Clients also can be encouraged to find alternative sources of pride, identify with same-race role models, and seek affirming support systems. Within family therapy, parents can be assisted in positive racial socialization efforts that include preparing children to effectively cope with racism.

Additional Intervention Contexts

Racism-related interventions have application in many contexts outside psychotherapy. These include educational, employment, community, and health care contexts, as well as within the field of psychology.

In the educational context, explicit antibias curricula have been developed to try to counteract the subtle and pervasive racist ideology that contributes to the development of prejudice and discriminatory behavior in children. Multicultural curricula also have been developed so that knowledge acquired in school is less Eurocentric and more reflective of the contributions and perspectives of the diverse peoples of the world. These efforts extend from preschool through higher education. There are also efforts to create progressive schools that target a particular group (e.g., African American boys) to enable specific needs to be met and to reduce the stigmatization and assumptions of inferiority that exist in traditional educational institutions.

Efforts to intervene with racism and discrimination in the employment context range from experiential diversity training to strategic organizational diversity initiatives, as well as diversity management and leadership seminars. Educational seminars on harassment and conflict resolution can also help reduce racism-related interactions in the workplace.

Within the community context, numerous interventions have been designed and implemented to improve race relations or resolve intergroup conflicts. There are also a growing number of rites-of-passage programs and other efforts that provide positive racial socialization, support racial identity, and minimize internalized racism. These interventions may buffer the potentially damaging effects of racism and discrimination.

In the health care context, efforts are being made in several areas. Professional training programs (e.g., medical residencies, nursing schools) are integrating various strategies to minimize bias and unintentional racism. There is increasing attention to issues of language access and health care interpretation so that target groups are not excluded from medical care. There are also early pipeline programs to support and facilitate youth of diverse racial backgrounds in entering a health care profession so that communities of color are not underserved or do not receive lower-quality health care.

Finally, there have been increasing efforts in the field of psychology to reduce the impact of racism and ethnocentrism in theory, research, practice, and training. For example, the development of the subfield of multicultural psychology has created a professional home for psychologists to generate, discuss, and publish theory and research relevant to diverse racial/ethnic groups that are free from the emphasis on comparative research with European Americans. Another important example is the advocacy and activism within the profession of psychology that led to an American Psychological Association resolution regarding multicultural competencies for the field. This resolution communicates the significance of recognizing and eliminating racial bias in the profession of psychology by providing guidelines for research, practice, training, and organizational development.

In addition, increasing attention has been given to diversity in the education and training of psychologists. Multicultural courses that are experiential, knowledge-focused, and/or skills-oriented are offered in an increasing number of universities and professional schools of psychology. These courses aim to increase self-awareness, provide information, and improve professional practice so that racism and discrimination have a decreasing presence in psychology. Although racism and discrimination continue to exist in psychological theory, research, and practice, efforts such as these contribute to combating oppressive dynamics within the field and increasing the relevance and application of psychology for diverse racial/ethnic groups.