Racism as a stressor

St. John’s University professor Elizabeth Brondolo has an article online titled Racism in Everyday Life: Studies of Mechanisms and Psychobiological Correlates. Some of her research, which studied traffic enforcement agents in New York City, had some very important findings. The agents were taught relaxation skills and practiced role-play to deal with insults by motorists. However, role-play was not an option when dealing with racist attacks:

But we learned that we couldn’t always use the exposure-based model in situations involving racism. Motorists sometimes used foul racial slurs to try to punish the TEAs for issuing tickets. Some agents listed these racial slurs on their scripts. But sometimes when we used these slurs in our exposure exercises, they evoked not only anger, but also a profound, palpable sadness. We couldn’t ask people to simply let go and accept these feelings.

Brondolo wanted a way to measure exposure to racism, but found that many of the measures were designed specifically for African Americans. She began to use an abridged version of the PEDQ (Perceived Ethnic Discriminatory Questionnaire) and test its validity on non-black groups. Participants were then asked to keep a diary of moods and social interactions.

Some of the findings include the following:

  • Most people had been exposed at least occasionally to items on the scale throughout their lives.
  • Social exclusion was the most commonly reported form of discrimination.
  • Workplace discrimination was reported more frequently than physical threat and harassment.
  • Even relatively brief encounters with racism could trigger anger and sadness.
  • Fear of isolation often prevents people from speaking out.
  • The stress caused by racism had significant adverse health effects.

Brondolo’s research also considered whether people’s negative attitudes played a part in raising their stress level. You know, because people of color are so hypersensitive and angry about racism and make mountains out of molehills:

We controlled for cynicism, hostile attributions, trait anxiety, and defensiveness–all characteristics that might influence our findings. We found that the relationships between racism and daily experiences of anger and perceptions of social interactions as harassing, unfair, or exclusionary persisted even after controlling for all four personality traits. This suggested to us that it wasn’t a problem with people’s attitudes or personality that accounted for the added stress burden. Instead, there were characteristics of the experience of racism that were burdensome to individuals and added to individuals’ stress burden above and beyond the contributions of their own personality.

I found out about Dr. Brondolo’s research through an interesting article in Indolink that mentioned she is measuring the effects of racism on the health and well-being of Asian populations. As you might know, Asian and Native American populations are often ignored in various types of studies. And racism against Asian Americans (and I suspect other groups as well) is often portrayed as non-existent. Prof. Brondolo’s work suggests the opposite is true:

According to her research – and contrary to widely accepted societal beliefs – Asian-Americans are closely related to African- and Latino-Americans in their day-to-day experiences of discrimination. Consequently, their health is threatened in similar ways.

One thought on “Racism as a stressor

  1. I am trying to find a copy of that article by Dr. Brondolo. I wonder if it has information about how racism affects cortisol levels. I’ll keep looking for the article. I just went to a training about PTSD and learned about how low cortisol levels can contribute to the development of PTSD. Thank you for this site. It’s a good place to come to. I have become increasingly and painfully aware of how differently I am treated compared to my partner of the past few years, who is male and white, and also very tall and loud with no visible disabilities. He has also become increasingly aware of his special treatment but it is a slow and painful process for both of us. Seriously, if I had known up front what this would all involve, I may not have had the balls to continue with the relationship.

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