Racial identity attitudes predict coping strategies in response to racial microaggressions

There is no shortage of evidence that racism-related stress experienced by minorities is associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes. Depression, anxiety, and heart disease are all known consequences. However, not all individuals respond to racism, be it overt and aggressive or covert and microaggressive, in the same way.

The relation between one’s racial identity and how one copes with racism-related stress is important, but not well understood, due in part to a lack of research. To remedy this, researchers from Tennessee and California examined how a set of four racial identity factors, explained below, impacted coping strategies for microaggressive racism. Their results are published in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development.

195 participants (roughly 80% female), all undergraduate college students at a large Western public university, were asked to complete several questionnaires in exchange for course credit. 53.3% of participants were Asian, 32.3% Latinx, and 14.4% Black. Most were born in America, and those who were born elsewhere had a mean US residence of 12.52 years.

Each participant completed the People of Color Racial Identity Attitudes Scale, which scores individuals on four statuses of racial identity: Conformity (devaluation of one’s own racial group), Dissonance (ambivalence towards one’s racial group and confused racial identity), Immersion-Emersion (idealization and immersion in one own’s group and denigration of White culture), and Internalization (positive commitment to one’s own group and clear sense of racial self).

To test responses to racism-related stress, individuals were presented with a vignette of a situation changed with racial microaggression (“You don’t speak like most Black people.”) and then presented with a series of possible responses to the situation (“Assert your dominance quickly”; “Try to meet the needs of others involved”), to which they could either strongly disagree (1) or strongly agree (5).

The authors found Black and Latinx individuals who ranked higher on conformity and dissonance tended to display more avoidant coping strategies. This fits well with theoretical models, which state that individuals with higher conformity and dissonance may be “less equipped to cope with racism-related stress, and thus, may cope in less active ways.”

Indeed, these identities relate closely to internalized racism, a term defined by sociologist Karen Pyke as the “conscious and unconscious acceptance of a racial hierarchy in which whites are consistently ranked above people of color.” Studies have shown that this kind of internalized oppression can lead to significant negative mental and physical health outcomes.

The results were similar for Asian participants: higher conformity and dissonance (as well as higher immersion-emersion) related to more avoidant and active antisocial coping strategies.

The authors note some limitations including the sample-size, self-selection of students of color, and pressure from social desirability while answering.

Overall, the findings paint a picture whereby individuals whose racial identities, both internally and vis-à-vis others and specifically White culture, employ more avoidant, less effective and more antisocial coping strategies.

There is thus an important opportunity for intervention, whereby individuals who are confused about or view their own racial identity negatively may benefit significantly from learning new coping strategies. Shifting one’s racial identity from Conformity and Dissonance to Immersion-Emersion and Internalization may also promote healthier coping strategies.

The study, “Examining the Association Between Racial Identity Attitudes and Coping With Racism-Related Stress”, was authored by J. A. Lewis, R. P. Cameron, G. M. Kim-Ju and L. S. Meyers.

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