Discrimination can cause significant psychological pain. People who are discriminated against because they are visibly different from others must continue to come to terms with their physical appearance despite their perceived differences. Racial and ethnic prejudice still occurs in societies throughout the world, as does discrimination against people with disabilities. Other forms of commonly practiced prejudice are against people with varying religious, sexual, or cultural beliefs. Regardless of the type of discrimination, the damage that it causes can be severe. People who experience intolerance and prejudice are at increased risk for developing negative coping strategies, such as substance misuse, aggression, depression, anxiety, fear, and posttraumatic stress.
Although one of the most common types of discrimination is racially motivated, individuals of different races can have the same emotional response when discriminated against for reasons other than the color of their skin. In a recent study, David R. Williams, Ph.D., of the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard University’s School of Public Health in Boston evaluated the perception and effect of discrimination in a sample of White and African American individuals to determine whether the psychological and physical result would be the same. The 100 participants included poor and affluent adults from four separate neighborhoods of varying socioeconomic status (SES).
Williams asked the participants about the types of discrimination they experienced and how they perceived this treatment. The majority, more than 90%, of all the participants clearly described their definition of unfair and unjust treatment and were quite confident that their past discrimination experiences were valid. Interestingly, race was not the common denominator for discrimination. Regardless of their race, those with the lowest SES felt like they had been discriminated against far more than the participants from high SES. Williams said, “Effects were the same whether experiences were attributed to race or to other reasons.” Specifically, these discriminatory events caused angry and frustrated emotional responses for all the participants who felt they had been discriminated against. For those from high SES, the response to perceived prejudice was the same as the response elicited by those with low SES. This finding suggests that regardless of the intention or target of the discrimination, the psychological damage it causes is the same.
Williams, D. R., John, D. A., Oyserman, D., Sonnega, J., Mohammad, S. A. (2012). Research on discrimination and health: An exploratory study of unresolved conceptual and measurement issues. American Journal of Public Health, 102.5, 975-978.
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