Racial discrimination—the unfair mistreatment of groups based on race—has known, pervasive consequences for health and contributes to health disparities. Historically, it is clear how laws that were in place could limit people’s access to resources and direct discrimination could endanger someone’s life and well-being. However, other forms of discrimination are still prevalent and can influence health, albeit less directly. For instance, microaggressions—subtle forms of invalidation or insult—may appear harmless but can also shape one’s livelihood over time (unfortunately the issue of differentiating microaggressions from other forms of discrimination hasn’t been resolved in the field and will need to be covered in another article). Several recent meta-analyses have shown that the consequences of microaggressions and discrimination on health are robust across studies and are evident in children and adolescents (e.g., Benner et al., 2018; Lui & Quezada, 2019; Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009; Priest et al., 2015). Discrimination also appears to be particularly maladaptive relative to other daily stressors, and research has investigated how discrimination may operate differently from (or through) different types of stress.
To clarify how discrimination can influence an individual’s life, Dr. Anthony Ong and colleagues employed a daily diary framework (Ong, Burrow, & Fuller-Rowell, 2009). Rather than having participants come into the lab for one assessment, they recruited 174 African Americans to complete a brief survey every day for 14 days. For each day, they would checkoff whether specific instances of discrimination occurred and whether other daily hardships occurred, such as arguments with friends and family. They also completed a survey of how chronically they experience discrimination in their lifetime. This way, the researchers could identify people who have experienced more discrimination in their lifetime and differentiate them from people who happen to experience discrimination during a specific day of the study. Diary studies are especially useful in assessing how events can have negative consequences in the span of a single day; they provide a glimpse into people’s lives and reveal how people feel differently on days when they do experience discrimination versus days when they do not.
They ultimately found support for the stress proliferation process, which is essentially the idea that certain stressors can be so damaging as to cause other secondary stressors. Unsurprisingly, people who reported more discrimination in their life also experienced discrimination on more days of the study and poorer mental health, in the forms of anxiety, depressive symptoms, and negative affect. However, they also found that these people experienced more daily negative events, and that these experiences explained the links between chronic discrimination and poorer mental health. These findings suggest that discrimination may worsen mental health by creating other, smaller stressors in one’s life. For instance, being insulted in the workplace can easily cause frustration that can then carryover to influence daily activities with friends and family. Moreover, the challenges of coping with discrimination require psychological resources which may ultimately cause people to struggle more with daily hassles.
As a developmental psychologist, I am concerned with how discrimination can actually influence families—beyond just the individual. The daily hassles brought on by discrimination can impose health consequences for the individual and may carryover to influence close others. According to the ‘linked lives’ hypothesis, adolescents’ experiences of discrimination can contribute to poorer health for their parents (Huynh et al., 2019) and vice versa (Espinoza, Gonzales, & Fuligni, 2013; Hou, Kim, Hazen, & Benner, 2017). The stress of discrimination may influence parents’ mental health and parenting practices, which in turn can worsen adolescent mental health (Espinoza, Gonzales, & Fuligni, 2013; Hou, Kim, Hazen, & Benner, 2017). It is possible that the distress of helping their children navigate experiences of discrimination can result in greater substance use for parents (Huynh et al., 2019).
In addition to parent-child relationships, several studies have found that discrimination can contribute to poorer romantic relationships as well, suggesting that people who experience more discrimination also experience less satisfying and more unstable relationships (Lincoln & Chae, 2010; Murry, Brown, Brody, Cutrona, & Simons, 2001). Interestingly, this work is not necessarily consistent. For instance, two recent studies of African American couples have found that discrimination does not relate to relationship satisfaction. Rather, results are mixed; in one study men who experienced more discrimination were more likely to report unstable relationships (Lavner, Barton, Bryant, & Beach, 2018), whereas in another study men who experienced more discrimination were rated as more supportive of their partner (Clavel, Cutrona, & Russell, 2017). It may be that learning to cope with this hardship can promote supportiveness. This work is very preliminary, and future studies will be needed to differentiate the means by which discrimination shapes relationships.
Discrimination is an especially pervasive stressor in that it can propagate greater hardship in other domains of life. However, relationships do not necessarily need to suffer. Rather, learning to cope with such stressors may be a means to reducing the toll discrimination can have on relationship quality. The consequences of discrimination for health and well-being are undeniable, but further work is needed regarding when these consequences emerge and how they can affect family dynamics. Discrimination continues to be an issue; for instance, even though many think racial discrimination in hiring practices is a thing of the past, there has been no reduction in hiring discrimination again African Americans since 1989 (Quillian, Pager, Hexel, & Midtboen, 2017). So long as discrimination and the consequences of deep-rooted racism continue to shape health and well-being, further efforts are needed to identify how discrimination individuals and their relationships with others.
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