One red peg stands apart from two groups of white pegs.
According to Melanie Maimon, experiences of racism are linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and a variety of other psychological disorders.
‘When people consistently experience racism, it’s common for them to disengage’
Feb 22, 2024, by Emma Bartlett
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Anxiety. Burnout. Depression.

These are just three of the mental and physical effects of racism, according to Melanie Maimon, Ph.D. In a nation where racism is baked into social structures, many individuals are continually dealing with personal and passed-down traumas. 

“In past generations, we’ve seen a lot more blatant racism. While there is still quite a bit of that today, we've transitioned into a period where people are engaging more in subtle forms,” says Maimon, an assistant professor of Psychology for the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences.

Maimon, whose research focuses on the experiences and consequences of discrimination, explores ways to alleviate harm and foster greater inclusion and belonging for people with diverse identities. When it comes to the psychological impact of racism, she notes that work must be completed at the personal and institutional levels to combat the adverse effects people are experiencing.

Stunting success

Structural racism, which refers to unequal treatment based on belonging to a particular ethnic group, can negatively impact a person’s educational and workplace outcomes.

“When people consistently experience racism in the environments they're in, it’s common for them to disengage,” Maimon says, noting that — on the college level — this could mean changing majors, decreasing involvement in schoolwork, or dropping out.

Similarly, in the workplace, people will experience exhaustion and psychological burnout; individuals may also choose to spend less time with co-workers or leave a job or career.

Maimon notes that the downstream consequences of racism don’t end there. If someone leaves a high-paying career field due to racism, they may pivot to another industry where they will be paid less but experience less trauma.

“That's something that's not just impacting their well-being but, if they have children, that's where we start to see this generational impact and this vast wealth inequality for people of different racial identities and backgrounds,” Maimon says.

Headspace harm

Mental health also takes a significant hit, as experiences of racism are linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and a variety of other psychological disorders; research shows that people may worry about behaving in ways that could confirm stereotypes about their identity group, which can often lead to worse performance in a stereotype-relevant domain.

Maimon notes that the anticipation of racist encounters can also negatively impact individuals.

“The more people expect that they might experience racism and the more they look for information from other people about how much their identity might be devalued and disrespected, the worse that is for mental health,” Maimon says. 

Learning about bias and racism they may encounter offers an important self-protective measure for people of color; however, Maimon suggests that parents who are teaching their children about racial bias combine that with celebrating their culture.

“Teaching kids with racial minority identities about their cultural background can be really beneficial and make them feel good about their identity,” Maimon says.

Addressing biases

According to Maimon, interventions are needed at the individual and societal levels to address structural racism.

“At the structural level, racism is baked into institutions. Companies should be looking at the policies and practices they have,” Maimon says, flagging governmental policies, hiring, housing, and the medical system as key elements that need close examination.

She notes that, in the early 2000s, research on discrimination in the metropolitan housing market from the Urban Institute revealed that applications with stereotypical white names were more likely to be accepted than identical applications with stereotypical Black names. Additionally, the medical field has shown bias through pain management where there’s traditionally been the expectation that people of color have a greater pain tolerance and shouldn't need as intense medications.

On the positive side, Maimon adds that television and film depictions of happy interracial couples and different identity groups interacting can be beneficial for people's race-related attitudes; this is especially helpful to people who live in non-diverse areas.

While societal changes are addressed little by little, taking time to reflect on our own unconscious and implicit biases is an important step for addressing racism on the personal level, says Maimon.

“People tend to be sensitive when we point out that they have biases. It's a little alarming at times to folks who think they have progressive views, but the more aware we are that we have some unconscious biases in our brains that aren't necessarily reflective of what we may as individuals feel, the more that we can reflect on and begin to change our own behaviors,” Maimon says.

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