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Can Racial Identity Protect Black Teens From Racism-Related Stress? It’s Complicated.

young black man wearing a bookbag is smiling and confident

A recent study finds that the vast majority of Black adolescents have experienced racism, that they experience anticipatory stress about experiencing racism again, and that their racial identity can influence that stress in a variety of ways.

“We know that racism is stressful,” says Elan Hope, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. “Part of that stress is anticipatory – waiting for the next racist thing to happen. But not everyone experiences this stress the same way. We wanted to know how racial identity may influence the way teens experience this stress. Can racial identity buffer them from this type of stress? Can it make it worse? The answer is complicated.”

To that end, the researchers conducted an in-depth survey of 442 Black adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17. The survey included questions about each participant’s experiences with racism; various aspects of their racial identity; and questions aimed at understanding the extent to which they experienced anticipatory racism-related stress.

The researchers focused on three aspects of racial identity: centrality, private regard and public regard. Centrality is how important being Black is to a study participant’s sense of self. Private regard is how the participant feels about Black people in general. Public regard is how the participant thinks other people feel about Black people in general.

The researchers also examined four aspects of anticipatory stress: psychological stress; physiological stress; “perseverative cognition” – when you can’t stop thinking about something; and “secondary appraisal” – which assesses the extent to which someone effectively evaluates their ability to prevent or reduce harm caused by a racism-related event.

Ninety-four percent of the study participants reported experiencing racism.

“We found that racial identity is a mixed bag when it comes to its relationship with anticipatory stress,” Hope says.

For example, the higher study participants scored on private regard, the less psychological stress they reported in anticipation of experiencing racism. But private regard did not appear to have any protective effect against the other aspects of anticipatory stress.

Meanwhile, the higher participants scored on centrality, the more anticipatory stress they reported across the board.

“This is complicated, because while high centrality scores were associated with worse anticipatory stress, previous research makes clear that there are many reasons it is important for Black people to feel good about being Black,” Hope says.

Researchers also found that higher public regard is associated with participants having less racism-related anticipatory stress. However, scoring high on public regard can pose challenges of its own. For example, there is some concern that Black teens who score high on public regard may be more likely to blame racist experiences on their personal characteristics, when they’ve done nothing wrong.

“This doesn’t mean that we should lie to kids about the state of racism in the world, but it highlights the value of kids being exposed to environments where people care about Black communities and are committed to anti-racism,” Hope says.

“Ultimately, the study highlights that while racial identity can help, there is a limit to what Black adolescents can do to protect themselves from the stresses associated with racism. And that, in turn, underscores the need for us, as a society, to address racism in a meaningful way.

“Racism is pervasive, and the vast majority of our study participants reported experiencing it,” Hope says. “Adolescence is a period of development when people begin to come to terms with who they are and how they fit into the world.

“Parents, teachers and caregivers need to be proactive about supporting these youth as they navigate who they are in terms of their race and what that will mean for how they interact with the world.”

The paper, “Black Adolescents’ Anticipatory Stress Responses to Multilevel Racism: The Role of Racial Identity,” is published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. The paper was co-authored by Marissa Brinkman, a former undergraduate at NC State; McKenzie Stokes, a recent Ph.D. graduate from NC State; Vanessa Volpe, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State; Lori Hoggard and Vanessa Hatton of Rutgers University; and Erin Elliot of the University of Michigan.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Black Adolescents’ Anticipatory Stress Responses to Multilevel Racism: The Role of Racial Identity”

Authors: Elan C. Hope, Marissa Brinkman, McKenzie N. Stokes, Vanessa V. Volpe, North Carolina State University; Lori S. Hoggard, Vanessa Hatton, Rutgers University; and Erin Elliot, University of Michigan

Published: April 22, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry

DOI: 10.1037/ort0000547

Abstract: Black adolescents face the stressful experience of racism in their everyday lives, which has negative implications for their health and well-being. In the current study, we explored experiences of individual, institutional, and cultural racism in relation to anticipatory racism-related stress responses (e.g., prolonged negative thinking, arousal in expectation of future racism) among Black adolescents (N = 442). We also examined whether three dimensions of racial identity, centrality, private regard, and public regard, moderate those relationships. We found that more experiences of racism at each level were related to greater anticipatory racism-related stress responses, measured as more cognitive activation of racial stressors, appraisal of coping strategies, and anticipation of future racism. We also found that some relationships between experiences of racism and anticipatory stress varied by regard. The positive relation between individual racism and perseverative cognition was stronger for those with low public regard. Similarly, the positive association between cultural racism and psychological anticipation was stronger for those with low public regard. The positive association between institutional racism and physiological anticipation of future racism was stronger for those with higher private regard. These findings contribute to the growing literature on the pervasiveness of racism in the lives of Black youth and the utility of racial identity to reduce harm from racism.

This post was originally published in NC State News.