Racism is Harmful...Yeah, We Know.

May 19, 2009

I caught this study a couple of days ago, reported in USA Today, which concludes that fifth graders who have experienced racial discrimination show higher symptoms of depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder than classmates who have not had the same experience. 15 percent of the approximately 5,000 students reported perceived ethnic/racial discrimination; the majority of these students were students of color.

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion we can draw from the study is that there may be a correlation between racial discrimination and ADHD, a disorder typically seen as a medical one that is not caused by environmental factors. Perhaps ADHD does in fact have ties to emotional well being and upbringing.

I'm not particularly interested in hashing out the remaining details of the study for a few reasons. Most of the results, though interesting because they are one of the first to investigate the relationship between racism and mental health among children, are still considered limited or inconclusive. Because the children had not been followed for a period of time, it's difficult to claim that prejudice itself harms mental health. The results are also not as interesting to me as the speculations made by Mark Shuster, one of the study leaders. Shuster supposes that perhaps "troubled kids prompt" more racially biased remarks from their peers, or that maybe children with emotional problems "perceive more bias." Both these claims seem troubling because they associate students of color with being troubled and they suggest that children who show symptoms of mental health disorders cannot correctly perceive racial discrimination.

Which leads me to the question that I mulled over while reading the study's results. When are we going to stop evaluating what is correctly perceived racial discrimination and focus our attentions on alleviating racial discrimination from the classroom? I understand that studies can be beneficial in creating mental health intervention and treatment programs, as well as be influential in shaping policy on a local and national level. But I'm frustrated that this study does what many parents and children of color already know from experience: that racial discrimination and racist remarks in the classroom can shape self-esteem, create painful memories and anxiety, and be emotionally hurtful. Creating a safe classroom and a just environment for marginalized students means that communities, parents and teachers must actively educate young people about the perils of homophobic remarks, comments about body image and beauty, racist and sexist attitudes. It's difficult and complicated and I definitely know nothing about parenting, but I am sure that in the midst of preparing young people of color for the racism they are bound to face in the classroom, we must also work towards something better.

I still have my memories of being haunted by Apu imitations, my larger nose often being remarked upon, and endless assumptions made about everything from my birthplace to my intelligence.

Share your stories, if you're feeling up for it. How did you get through it? How did it affect your well being?


Nina Jacinto is a freelance blogger living in the Bay Area whose writing focuses on issues of race, gender, and media representation. She's a graduate of Pomona College and loves South Asian diaspora narratives, bargain shopping, and the Internet.


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I&;m glad you ran across this article! For me, this is one of those places where theory meets practice, as these are my life experiences, my area of study and research as a psychologist... and this is the kind of work that has the potential to influence policy, curriculum, and pedagogy. I want to offer a couple of respectful defenses for two of the issues raised.<br />
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First, after reading the US Today article, I have to put in a quick defense for the scientific method. I think it&;s important that Dr. Schuster offers alternative explanations for the results of the study. It&;s a bit of a dangerous game, for sure, but this practice is SO important in science...since our society relies so heavily on data, and since that data is so often erroneously used to "prove" absolutes, it&;s imperative that scientists qualify their findings with alternate hypotheses. It&;s what keeps us honest. Still, we have to be SO careful about what we say and about how our data is used. And by whom.<br />
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My second defense is for the question of perceived vs actual discrimination. Why? Because research on general stress indicates that our perception/ cognitive appraisal of the stressor is more strongly correlated for negative physical and mental health consequences than is mere exposure. The same event, then, can trigger different physiological reactions in different individuals based on their <i>perception</i> of the event. HOWEVER, what if that&;s <b>not</b> true for discrimination? What if just <i>breathing</i> this stuff passively is doing us harm, regardless of how we appraise the experiences? How could this finding influence policy? Or, conversely, what if the same paradigm <b>DOES</b> hold true? What kinds of community-based interventions could we implement to help alleviate some of the negative effects of discrimination, simply by giving teachers, parents, youth group leaders, and/or guidance counselors the training to help young people alter their perceptions and reactions? <br />
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This research isn&;t the be-all-end-all...but I do believe that it is one important piece of a multi-pronged approach toward a more just society.

These are two wonderful points - both reminders of how scientific research can play an important role in the fight for racial justice. <br />
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Finding out just how exactly racism is detrimental to the mental health of people of color is absolutely imperative; I think what can be frustrating though, is to think that we need so much proof in order to validate what many people feel so strongly everyday: that racism can be emotionally painful, that it can feel unfair and unjust.