When someone experiences a particularly distressing experience, they often feel better when they are able to share their feelings with others. However, according to research from a new study conducted by James M. Henson of the Department of Psychology at Old Dominion University in Virginia, people who share their feelings of distress resulting from racial discrimination may actually increase their negative emotions associated with the event.
Henson wanted to determine how racial rejection sensitivity (RS-Race) and social constraints affected the distress that accompanies discrimination and if these factors increased negative emotional responses and exacerbated the risk for negative coping strategies such as alcohol and drug use and aggression. For his study, Henson recruited 551 African-American students who were attending a largely white college and asked them to report their experiences with racial discrimination. He asked how they felt about the events and how much they felt they were permitted to discuss their feelings with family, friends, and loved ones.
He found that the participants with high levels of RS-Race had higher negative emotions as a result of racial discrimination and were less likely to consider forgiving the perpetrator. The individuals with high RS-Race that had low social constraints had the highest levels of racial distress. This finding was rather surprising, but Henson believes it makes sense. He explains it by suggesting that even though being able to talk to others may alleviate emotional distress, if the participants with high racial distress shared their feelings with others who support their position, they may perpetuate the resentment and validate participants’ feelings of blame and anger.
In sum, these findings show that racial sensitivity makes individuals vulnerable to the negative effects of racism and can increase racial distress. Henson said, “We wish optimistically that problems associated with racial discrimination might go away as U.S. society becomes more diverse racially and ethnically.” Efforts aimed at decreasing discrimination and the negative impact it has must continue.
Henson, James M., et al. (2013). African-American Students’ Responses to Racial Discrimination: How Race-Based Rejection Sensitivity and Social Constraints are Related to Psychological Reactions. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 32.5 (2013): 504-29. ProQuest. Web. 23 May 2013.
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