Talking about Racially Discriminating Experiences May Perpetuate Distress

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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  • grant


    May 31st, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    I am not buying this at all. How could not talking about something powerful that has happened to you in your life be better than actually getting those thoughts and feelings out in the open? I understand that it may leave some people feeling pretty vulnerable and angry. That’s only rightly so. But to keep this bottled up on the inside is never going to be highlighted as a mark of health, and I am not sure that this thought of holding it in will be something that is lauded across the therapeutic community. I could be arong (happened before ;) but I am a firm believer that when you hold old feelings in on the inside that is never going to be a wise choice for you. I advocate to let it out, talk it through and make a difference that way.

  • Melanie


    June 3rd, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    The distress is probably caused by having to relive unpleasant memories.
    Discrimination is never fun for anyone who is being discriminated against. So to have to relive it by talking about it? That is not going to be a great experience for anyone.
    My only point that I would like to amke though is that without having conversations about this, then how is there ever supposed to be any sort of meaningful and lasting change? We have to talk about it, the things that we have seen and heard and experienced, to make changes for future generations.

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