Coping with Racism & Discrimination

Considerations for students of color and white allies

The first year of college marks a significant milestone in your transition to adulthood. As you settle into a campus routine, you will most likely be tasked with adjusting to being separated from your family, forming new friendships, and coping with a more rigorous academic curriculum. Although it is often exhilarating to gain a new sense of independence and responsibility during this process, at times you may find it difficult to juggle the demands of your social and academic life. Unfortunately, among students of color, the common stressors of the college experience are often compounded by the burden of race-related stress. Racism and discrimination continue to be a fact of life for many students of color on college campuses. At times, racism is overt, such as the use of racial slurs, graffiti, or even violence. However, it can also frequently arise in more subtle forms, such as stereotyping, assumptions, or exclusion. In any form, racism and discrimination add stress and challenges to the lives of students of color. Finding ways to cope and bringing concerns to the forefront are important steps in owning personal power.

The purpose of this document (thanks to the counseling centers at the University of Illinois and UCSC) is to define race-related stress and the impact it can have on the academic and social success of students of color. Additionally, it will provide tips on how to effectively cope with race-related stress and maximize one’s academic potential.

Racism and race-related stress

As a student of color, the additional frustrations you may experience might be the result of racism, which leads to race-related stress. Racist actions usually involve some form of racial prejudice and discrimination. However, at times you may find yourself questioning whether you were a target of a racist act. This is a common reaction because modern-day racism tends to be covert in nature. Additionally, perpetrators may not recognize their actions as racist because their behavior does not mimic the more overt forms of racism commonly seen in the past. The uncertainty that can accompany perceptions of racism is often due to a misunderstanding of the behaviors that constitute racism. To understand racism it may be helpful to understand the concepts of prejudice and discrimination.

What is prejudice?

Prejudice refers to any negative beliefs, feelings, judgments, or opinions we hold about people based on their group membership. The group membership does not necessarily have to involve race/ethnicity. People can be prejudiced based on several group categories such as religious affiliation, political affiliation, membership in a sorority/fraternity, a particular major (e.g., believing that math/science majors are nerds), gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Prejudice that is based on an individual’s race/ethnicity is known as “racial prejudice.” If we hold negative beliefs against members of a different group, these negative beliefs may cause us to discriminate against members of that group.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person is harassed or treated less favorably because of their membership in a particular group. These groups can be based on race/ethnicity, political affiliation, religious affiliation, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability status, socioeconomic status, etc. An example of discrimination is a student organization that refuses to accept members of a certain racial/ethnic group.

What is racism?

Racism is racial prejudice that has been incorporated into the functions of major institutions, corporations, and social systems such as universities, healthcare organizations, banking, housing, and governmental policies. Racism leads to discriminating against a minority racial/ethnic group while maintaining the benefits and privileges of a majority racial/ethnic group which holds most of the power within the major institutions, corporations, and social systems. When the majority group in power makes decisions based upon racial prejudice, this can lead to unjust sociopolitical barriers and policies against the minority group.

Common consequences of racism for students of color

  • A sense of being isolated and an outsider in the CSUMB community
  • Pressure to “prove oneself” and defy stereotypes
  • Stress related to being seen as a “representative” of one’s community
  • Feeling fearful, anxious, frustrated, helpless, depressed, or angry
  • Considering dropping out or transferring to another school
  • Difficulties with concentration and motivation for classes
  • Being unsure or confused about whether one is being treated differently because of race or ethnicity

Race-related stress

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. Race-related stress refers to the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism. It is important to understand that you can experience race-related stress even if you were mistaken that a racist act occurred. Race-related stress reactions only require that a person believes that they were the target of racism. Below is a listing of some of the detrimental effects of race-related stress:

Intense emotional reactions:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Helplessness-Hopelessness
  • Isolation
  • Paranoia
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Self-blame
  • Self-doubt

Ineffective coping:

  • Avoidance
  • Disengaging
  • Substance Use

Health Concerns:

  • Heart Disease
  • Hypertension
  • Muscle Tension

These psychological and physical effects can have a significant effect on your daily life. For example, if you feel isolated due to experiences of racism, you may be reluctant to interact with students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds or participate in campus activities such as 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 racial/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 racial/ethnic group. The anxiety that often accompanies stereotype threat can have a negative effect on your performance with academic tasks such as class participation, assignments, and exams.

Recommendations for coping with race-related stress

Fortunately, there are ways to combat the negative effects of race-related stress and produce positive outcomes.

Build a support network.You are not the only person dealing with race-related stress and connecting with other people with similar experiences and feelings can help you successfully navigate racism. Racism is personally insulting, establishes barriers and is oftentimes rooted in a larger social system within the college environment. Experiencing racism can cause feelings of isolation and even lead to depression. Friends, family and faculty/staff members can lend a listening ear and serve as advocates.

Utilize Your Belief SystemIf spirituality plays an important role in your life, utilize your belief system as a way to cope with stress. This could involve connecting with others who share your spiritual beliefs, confiding in your spiritual leaders, or participating in your spiritual rituals (e.g., prayer, meditation).

Develop a Positive Cultural IdentityHaving a positive cultural identity and strong sense of self is particularly helpful in combating race-related stress. 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.

Affirm Yourself.Experiencing racism and oppression from others can be very self-defeating. Reinforcing your positive aspects is one way to remain in control. When other people treat you poorly because of race, it’s an indication of their ignorance. Taking care of yourself should be primary, so practice healthy habits.

Practice Good Self-CareIn dealing with the pressures of being exposed to racism and discrimination, it can be easy to lose track of the things we need to do to take care of ourselves. Students may become exhausted, frequently using extra energy to process and combat these experiences. It may sometimes be hard to resist using unhealthy ways to cope, such as using drugs and alcohol excessively, or isolating oneself from the broader community. Taking good care of your physical, mental, and spiritual health will leave you better equipped to cope with the stress of bias, and make empowered choices for yourself.

Challenge Negative SituationsMake positive reinterpretations of negative thoughts and reframe negative situations with a three step process:

  1. 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.”
  2. Perform a reality check. Understand that your feelings can often distort the reality of the situation. Think of examples that counter the negative thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing. 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 in any of your classes.
  3. Make a positive reinterpretation. You can reframe the initial negative thought by saying “The admissions committee accepted me because they believe in my potential to succeed” and “I know I am a highly capable person and I 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.”

Get Empowered.

If you are experiencing racism or discrimination, finding a way to push back is empowering and healthy. It can reduce feelings of depression or helplessness, and give frustration and anger a positive outlet. This will look different for different people in different situations. You might use humor to challenge an offensive statement with a group of friends; get involved in a political or activist cause; blog or get involved with online discussions; or simply offer a differing opinion in a group discussion. Whatever your style, it’s important to have a way to make your voice heard.

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:

  • Be clear about what it is you want to see change.
  • Be clear about how you see that change being implemented.
  • Make sure you talk to the person/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. Get a team so that the work on these tasks aren’t so daunting 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.

Strategies for allies

An ally is a person who does not belong to a particular social group, but is actively engaged in advocating for and supporting that community. White students can be allies to students of color, and students of color can be allies to each other. (For example, an African American student can be an ally to the Asian American community.) Allies are important partners in countering racism and discrimination on campus.

Tips for Being an Effective Ally:

Get Educated.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in ethnic studies or be a historian. But making an effort to learn the history and current issues relevant to the communities you support is an important part of being an ally. Getting educated includes learning about the way that power, privilege, and oppression have impacted others’ lives, as well as your own.

Speak up (But Speak For Yourself).

When you see racism rearing its head in your day-to-day life, say something. Too often, people of color are left holding all the responsibility for educating others and speaking up about racism, but racism is everyone’s issue. At the same time, avoid speaking for other groups of people (which can be inaccurate, reductionist, or even unintentionally condescending), and stick to sharing your own opinions and viewpoints.

Know the difference between intent and impact.It’s easy to recognize overt racism, but it can be harder to recognize – and therefore, to challenge – racism when it comes with good intentions.

Unintended Negative Impact

Allies recognize that well-intended actions can sometimes have an unintentional negative or hurtful impact. They are willing to listen non-defensively, and try to understand the perspectives of people of color when they express discomfort, hurt, or anger.

Challenge the Behavior, Not the Person.

Accusing another person of being a racist automatically puts them on the defensive, shutting them down and ending the conversation. Encourage thoughtfulness and dialogue by addressing racist behaviors and language, without escalating into hostility and name-calling.

Be Willing to Make Mistakes.

When racism is part of the culture, we all absorb beliefs and attitudes that are shaped by that reality. Our actions will sometimes reflect this despite our best efforts, meaning that we all make mistakes from time to time, and can unwittingly cause anger or hurt. Don’t panic or despair. Be willing to genuinely listen, learn, engage, and apologize. Assume that making mistakes is part of the learning process of being an ever more effective ally. Be prepared for flare-ups of disappointment and criticism. Learn from your mistakes and do not retreat.

Be a 100% Ally. No Deals. No Strings Attached.Everyone’s oppression needs to be opposed unconditionally. Humans need to be concerned about other people’s liberation issues, and it is in your own interest to do so and to be an ally.

Personal growth and counseling center resources

In addition to group and individual counseling, the Counseling Center also provides information about and referral to other campus and community resources. Support groups are available at the Counseling Center. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call the Personal Growth and Counseling Center at 582-3969. Appointments are strictly confidential.