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Race and Ethnicity

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Humans are far more similar than they are different, and more interconnected than most individuals realize. At the genetic level, any two people are more than 99 percent the same as each other, no matter their skin color or ethnic origin. Still, both race, which describes one’s physical characteristics, and ethnicity, which encompasses cultural traditions such as language and religion, play significant roles in people’s lives. Such aspects of identity inform how individuals see themselves, how others perceive them, and how they relate to each other. Communities built around racial and ethnic identity, for example, can be a source of resilience and connectedness for immigrants who might otherwise feel isolated or alienated in a new country.

Historically, sociologists have defined a minority group as one that lacks power, but demographic trends are challenging to that outlook: The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2045, the country will become “majority minority,” with more non-white than white citizens. One product of this shift has been a dramatic rise in the country’s multiracial population, which increaased 276 percent between 2010 and 2020. How these young people embrace or reject existing notions of race as they mature may have a profound effect on race relations in the future.

Some recent events, as well as some major research studies, however, suggest that some white Americans feel upset and threatened by these demographic changes, feelings that are fueling an apparent increase in racist activity in many areas. And around the world, while more people have come to welcome racial and ethnic diversity, minority communities continue to experience inequality, injustice, and exclusion, with significant consequences for both mental and physical health.

Race and Mental Health

Research has shown that mental-health issues affect members of all racial groups, but that members of minority communities tend to receive lower-quality care, partly because clinicians may carry unconscious biases about how individuals in other races manage stress, trauma, or even well-diagnosed medical illness. Especially troubling are surveys finding that, even among doctors, there is a prevalent belief that Black people literally have thicker skin than whites and therefore, less sensitivity to pain. Experts suggest that the solution is not “color-blind” practice but an acknowledgment of difference and bias and more open discussion with patients from all groups about their symptoms and needs.

How can therapists address race in their practices?

Most therapists receive some training in treating people from diverse communities, but many experts suggest that such raining is insufficient and that too many practitioners try to adopt a “color-blind” approach to sessions, often to the detriment of people of color who may be experiencing specific psychological effects due to racism. Since white therapists vastly outnumber others in the field, most non-white clients will end up being treated by someone who is not of their race. That doesn’t mean therapy can’t still be successful, if professionals actively engage in learning about the issues that face individuals from other races, if they welcome discussion about race in therapy sessions, and accept that they will make mistakes and immediately acknowledge them as they work together with clients to help them develop the stamina and resilience they need.

Do eating disorders affect people of different races in different ways?

They do not; eating disorders affect people of all races, but whether they receive proper treatment, research shows, may have a great deal to do with race. This has been traced to a bias among practitioners that eating disorders are primarily a concern of young, privileged white women. In practice, research finds, this has meant that men and women of other racial groups have been underdiagnosed and failed to receive treatments that could benefit them, because clinicians are less likely to ask them questions about their eating habits, even when they are equally symptomatic to white counterparts.

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The Roots and Effects of Racism

The persistence of racism in society, both on an individual and institutional level, has detrimental effects on those who are discriminated against, a body of evidence makes clear, with both physical and mental health consequences that limit individual potential, happiness, and even their life span.

All people, no matter their race, engage in bias to some degree. At a young age, we begin to discriminate between those who are like us, or their “ingroup,” and those who are not—our “outgroup.” The recognition of such distinctions can, but does not need to, foster prejudice and a racist mindset. Whether it does or not can often be traced to lessons learned about others in childhood, whether from family members, teachers, media and culture, or religious institutions. Racism emerges from acquired stereotypes about others based on beliefs about their immutable characteristics of racial or ethnic identity.

Some biases are considered implicit—for example, research shows that people tend to recognize the faces of others from their own race more quickly than they do those of another race, and not being able to accurately read another person’s face can create psychological distance that interferes with empathy. These biases can be overcome, research suggests, not be trying to repress them but by recognizing them and, when they are detected, making a conscious choice to reject them.

To learn more, see Bias.

What are the psychological roots of racism?

Research, especially on children’s attitudes toward race, has found that racism is generally an acquired, or learned, prejudice not necessarily inherent in humans. On the other hand, evidence suggests that people also have an inherent capability to connect with others. Specifically, learned racism can block people’s instinctual empathy, and a lack of empathy is more likely to foster a racist worldview. Greater interaction with people of different races can lessen racist attitudes and increase empathy, but experts suggest that social empathy, or the ability to understand the larger social forces that promote racism, is also necessary to limit and eventually overcome its effects.

Does racism affect physical health?

A growing body of evidence suggest that, in the same way as chronic stress in other areas of life can affect one’s physical health, the cumulative effects of the stress of dealing with racism can provoke depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal problems. Multiple studies of people of different races have found that those who reported experiencing more discrimination were generally in poorer health, a “cascade” response to stress that wore away at the body’s physiological systems.

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