Race-related stress can have an impact on the emotional well-being, academic, and social success of students of color.
Coping with Race-Related Stress
Unfortunately, among students of color, common stressors of the college experience are often compounded by the burden of race-related stress. As a student of color, the additional frustrations you may experience as a result of racism leads to race-related stress. Racist actions usually involve some form of racial prejudice and discrimination. Whether these actions are covert or overt, racism and racial microaggressions can be harmful to your well-being.
Race-related stress refers to the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism. When students of color experience racism, it not only causes problems in their social and economic lives, but also negatively impacts their physical and psychological health. Detrimental effects of race-related stress are:
Intense emotional reactions
- Helplessness or Hopelessness
- Paranoia or Mistrust
- Substance Use
- Heart disease
- Muscle tension
These psychological and physical effects can have a significant effect on your daily life. For example, if you feel isolated due to racism, you may be reluctant to interact with students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, or participate in campus activities, student organizations, intramural sports, classroom discussions, and study groups.
You may also experience a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, which involves the fear that one’s actions will confirm existing stereotypes about a person’s self-identified race or ethnic group. Students of color who experience stereotype threat may begin to believe that their peers do not regard them as individuals, but as representatives of their race or ethnic group. The anxiety that often accompanies stereotype threat can have a negative effect on your performance in academic tasks such as class participation, assignments, and exams. Stereotype threat can also lead to an internalization of negative racial stereotypes about the capabilities of your race or ethnic group.
To combat the negative effects of race-related stress and produce positive outcomes, consider the following:
- Build a support network. Connect with others who have similar experiences and feelings that can help you cope with and address incidents of racism.
- If spirituality plays an important role in your life, utilize your belief system as a way to cope with stress. Connect with others who share your spiritual beliefs, confide in your spiritual leaders, or participate in your spiritual rituals (e.g., prayer, meditation).
- Develop a positive cultural identity and strong sense of self, which is particularly helpful in combating race-related stress and stereotype threat.
- Take classes that focus on the historical experiences and contributions of your cultural group and join campus organizations that celebrate your cultural norms and ideals. Visit the Multicultural Resource Center to start forming connections.
- Make positive reinterpretations of negative thoughts and reframe negative situations with a three step process. (See the list of 'Ways to Help Yourself'.)
- Become involved in social action.
- Document acts of racism or intolerance. Don’t ignore or minimize your experiences, and think broadly about what could be an act of racism. It doesn’t have to be an overt act (e.g., professor consistently not calling on you or minimizing your contributions, curriculum racially biased, etc). Talk to someone you trust and report it.
- Be strategic in social action. When attempting to change policy or procedures, it is important that you do this effectively by:
- Being clear about what you want to see change
- Being clear about how you see that change being implemented
- Make sure you talk to the person or department that will most likely be able to get you want you want.
- Be mindful about timing (e.g., when is it the time to share your experiences and frustrations, when is it time to work on change and demands, when is it time to negotiate).
- Don’t work in isolation. Form a team so that the work on these tasks isn't overwhelming for any one person.
- Call people out when you witness acts of injustice and intolerance.
- Try not to get discouraged. Change doesn’t happen overnight and movements are a long process. Remember that you are one cog in the wheel and your contribution, no matter how small you may think it is, is a vital component of the movement.
- Don’t underestimate the power you have to make change. Student involvement has been instrumental in starting major movements throughout history.
Ways to Help Yourself
- Identify negative feelings. For instance, a failing grade on an examination may lead to the negative thought “The admissions committee made a mistake when they accepted me.”
- Perform a reality check. Understand that your feelings can often distort the reality of the situation. Think of examples that counter your negative thoughts and feelings. For instance, the admissions committee most likely made their decision because your past academic performance fit their acceptance criteria. Additionally, failure on one examination does not automatically indicate that you cannot succeed.
- Make a positive reinterpretation. You can reframe the initial negative thought by saying, “The admissions committee accepted me because they believe in my ability to succeed”, or “I know I am highly capable and can improve my academic performance with additional support.” You can also reframe your experiences with racism with statements such as “This can only make me stronger” or “My elders have gone through this and persevered and so can I.”