The strongest and clearest conclusion that can be drawn from this review is that there is a significant need for further research on strategies for coping with racism. No coping strategy has emerged as a clearly successful strategy for offsetting the mental or physical health impacts of racism. Instead, each approach has some demonstrated strengths, but also considerable side effects or limitations.
Ethnic and racial identity develop to meet multiple needs, including enhancing one’s pride and commitment to one’s cultural group as well as helping individuals develop meaningful strategies for managing discrimination based on racial or ethnic bias. Studies suggest that racial identity, particularly racial or ethnic pride and belonging may have beneficial effects in some circumstances. But these components of identity are not sufficient to ameliorate the effects of racism on the development of depressive symptoms and may increase the detection of threat and the perception of harm.
Involvement with only one type of identity may restrict the individuals’ ability to consider multiple perspectives and learn a range of coping options. Instead, in an increasingly multicultural society, it will be important to understand the best ways to help individuals master the complex psychological tasks involved in maintaining individual, group and national identities, particularly when the values at one level contrast with the values at another. Oyserman has specifically suggested that a “possible selves” approach, encouraging individuals to incorporate aspects of different types of group identities, may be of benefit (Oyserman et al. 2007
It may be that the strength of this approach is not only in gaining the benefits of having multiple roles, but in the process of mastering the underlying cognitive-affective processes that subserve these identities. Learning to think about oneself as a member of many different groups requires considering multiple perspectives and developing the ability to shift the focus of one’s attention even when experiencing strong emotion. Additionally, individuals must learn to integrate specific individualized information (e.g., about stressors and resources specific to the individual) with larger category-based information (e.g., about stressors and resources conferred because of group membership). In the process of developing an awareness of many possible identities, individuals may also strengthen their own capacity for effective coping in a range of circumstances and increase their ability to draw support from a number of different groups. Similarly, social support appears to be beneficial in a variety of circumstances, but the available data do not support a direct role for non-specific social support as a buffer of the effects of racism on distress. A greater understanding of the types of support beneficial for different phases and dimensions of the experience of racism will be needed to facilitate the development of support-based interventions including, for example, group based stress-management programs.
The clinical literature (Elligan and Utsey 1999
; Utsey et al. 2002
) may provide some guidance for the specific types of support that may be valuable at different points in time. It may be necessary to include communication that is aimed at validating the individual’s experience (i.e., the perception that race-based maltreatment may have occurred), while also offering opportunities to review the circumstances and identify factors that elicited perceptions of threat. This type of support is needed to decrease defensiveness and increase the capacity to clearly articulate specific concerns and develop appropriate strategies to manage the specific threat. But acute problem-focused support may not be sufficient. Support may also be needed to address and ameliorate the painful nature of racism, providing an opportunity to address not only the feelings of anger, but of shame and anxiety as well. Finally, still other forms of support may be needed to provide hope and the motivation and direction to reduce racism and its effects over the long term.
The psychobiological effects of anger suppression among African Americans are among the most consistent findings in the literature on coping with racism. These data suggest that suppressing anger in the face of discrimination is associated with elevated BP or greater BP responses, but the studies have included only African Americans or European Americans. Other data suggest that there may be cultural moderators of these effects, since the association between anger suppression and distress varies depending on the individual’s ethnicity or race.
Yet, it is unclear what the effective alternatives to anger suppression and aggressive confrontation might be. We need better and more detailed answers to the questions: What is the most effective method to protest ethnicity-related maltreatment? How can anger be used to effectively communicate the seriousness of injustice without exhausting the targets of injustice? If individuals suppress anger at the time of the maltreatment, how can they reintroduce the discussion and communicate their concerns and remedy the injustice later? Understanding the predictors of anger suppression and confrontation both at the time of the incident and over the long run is likely to yield insight into the costs and benefits of these different approaches and to suggest more effective strategies.
Since racism and strategies for coping with racism occur within an interpersonal context, it is important to understand how different behaviors are perceived by others. Czopp et al. (2006)
indicates that confrontation coping can be very effective in changing a perpetrator’s beliefs and behavior. The different features of the confrontation (e.g., the ethnicity of the confronter, the emotional tone of the message) are associated with variations in the effectiveness of the confrontation in changing behavior and eliciting negative reactions. The literature on coping with racism must be closely integrated with the empirical literature on the perceptions of targeted individuals by members of other racial or ethnic groups (Kawakami et al. 2007
). With this knowledge, individuals can make better predictions about the likely outcomes of their efforts to combat racism and to become increasingly effective in their communication.
Cultural norms have changed regarding the acceptability of overtly discriminatory behavior. Social modeling via the media and other methods has been used to communicate more egalitarian values and to deride racist behavior. It may be useful to use similar methods to generate and model strategies for communicating concern and anger about more subtle discriminatory or stigmatizing actions.
There are conceptual and methodological problems with the existing literature that are common to a new research area confronting a complex and disturbing problem. Some difficulties are related to problems in conceptualizing racism-related coping, and developing models that incorporate the different types of strategies needed to accommodate variations in demand across time and across contexts. To date, very few studies have examined the degree to which the effects of racism-related coping strategies vary by context or timing, and very few have examined the degree to which individual difference variables, including the presence of other background stressors or personality dimensions, shape the type of coping choice (Brondolo et al. 2008
; Scott 2004
) or moderate its effectiveness (Danoff-Burg et al. 2004
; Scott 2004
Surprisingly, almost no studies have examined variations in the effectiveness of the strategies by the stage of the incident (i.e., in preparation for future difficulties, at the time of the incident or following the termination of the conflict). Additionally, investigations have not adequately separated out the types of strategies most effective for managing the practical consequences of exposure versus the emotional consequences of confronting unjust social exclusion. The development of new measures of racism-related coping that incorporate issues of timing, context, and intent are needed.
Research is also needed to investigate the differential effects of any particular strategy on functioning, affect and health. Some coping strategies, for example, may be effective in limiting exposure to racism, but may have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Outcomes must also include assessments of the target’s perceptions of effectiveness as well.
Because coping strategies may have side effects, there is a need for more research involving multiple outcome measures. Confrontational coping may have the side effect of creating or exacerbating interpersonal conflict. Anger suppression may have the side effect of increasing rumination. Social support seeking can be distracting or confusing. The results of studies reporting effects that are limited to one or two outcome domains may be misleading regarding the overall effectiveness of the coping responses examined.
In this review, we have chosen to consider a coping strategy as effective if it ameliorates some of the deleterious health effects of racism, specifically effects on depression symptoms or risk factors for hypertension. However, there may be other dimensions of effectiveness worth considering: Does the strategy for coping with racism reduce the incidence of racism over the long run? Does it achieve the personal goals of the target (i.e., to get a job, to avoid exclusion) even it if incurs some consequences as well? Does it decrease fear?
A fuller understanding of the potential benefits of strategies for coping with racism will be facilitated by intervention research. Ultimately, these will have the broadest impact if delivered and evaluated on a community, institutional, or national scale. Public education messages and school-based health promotion activities have the potential of reaching a large and diverse audience. But they will only be as effective as the coping responses that they attempt to promote.
We focused on stress-buffering, which is only one model of the manner in which coping responses may ameliorate the effects of exposure to racism. As shown in , other plausible models include mediational models that posit simultaneous causal effects of stress on coping and of coping on outcomes. Some of the strategies that we have examined, such as anger expression or racial identity development, may be better considered as responses that emerge as a function of discrimination rather than as coping responses that develop independently of exposure. Developing different strategies may require a substantial effort on the part of the target. Both buffering and mediational models are best examined in large-scale, longitudinal studies, which are in short supply in the published literature.
Early models of coping may have reflected the more general societal view that racial and ethnic discrimination were an immutable feature of life. As legal, economic, and social conditions change, the possibilities for coping with ethnic and racial discrimination will change as well. As new solutions and opportunities develop, the models of these coping strategies will also evolve.
Research on strategies for coping with racism is necessary to empower targeted individuals to develop and choose methods that are effective at reducing discrimination, increasing hope, and buffering the impact of racism on health. As we come to understand a fuller range of consequences of each strategy, we can provide better guidance to help individuals make more informed choices about the ways they wish to cope with racism and protect their health. We hope that this knowledge and the detailed description of the ways in which racism is experienced by the targets will contribute to the elimination of discriminatory behavior.