When viewed in this light, the psychological effects of racism are actually fairly similar to those of other abusive, oppressive, or otherwise threatening attitudes, actions, and situations. The disposition toward negative affect encouraged by the perception of racism is in many ways the same kind of damaging psychological reinforcement experienced by individuals in an abusive household or people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, because in all of these cases many of the neuroses and psychological traits exhibited in response are a direct result of a kind of negative affect conditioning, with the only difference being the particular threat that comes to be expected. This comparison is also helpful in understanding one of the more tragic effects of racism, which is its influence on children.
A 2004 study on the experiences of racism among African-American parents and its effect on their children's mental health revealed that parental experiences of racism directly correlates to a much higher rate of behavioral problems among children, but only in those instances in which the parent was unable or unwilling to confront that racism directly (Caughy, O'Campo, & Muntaner, 2004, p. 2118). In particular, parents who denied experiencing racism either to researchers or their children had children with much higher rates of behavioral disorders. The researchers propose that this effect is due to the fact that for many children, parental denial of racism does little to assuage the child's own perception of racism, or at least his or her perception of threats ultimately caused by racism (Caughy, O'Campo, & Muntaner, 2004, p. 2123). Rather than protecting children from the psychological effects of racism, denying its existence actually perpetuates those effects, because children are essentially forced to cope with the tangible effects of racism without being allowed to understand their origin or cause. This is likely why depression and anxiety was higher among children living in areas where the fear of victimization was common; not only did the children have to cope with the fear of victimization, they were not even able to contextualize that fear within a psychosocial context that might make it, if not rational, at least understandable (Caughy, O'Campo, & Muntaner, 2004, p.2123).
The ill effects of racism on children extends well beyond preschool, because research has shown that the perception of racism influences minority students' motivation all the way into college (Reynolds, Sneva, & Beehler, 2010, p. 135). In particular, the perception of racism negatively effects black and Latino/a students' extrinsic motivation, meaning that external factors motivating students produce rapidly diminishing returns (Reynolds, Sneva, & Beehler, 2010, p. 141). Though the researchers did not discuss the possible reasons for this, it seems reasonable to presume that external factors influencing motivation would gradually become meaningless or otherwise irrelevant when experiencing racism, because in most cases those external factors (such as the hope for a higher paying job) are wrapped up in the same social structures that produce and perpetuate that racism in the first place.
One interesting and rather hopeful discovery to come out of this research is data that suggests the experience of racism can actually increase intrinsic motivation, meaning the individual's internal drive, so long as the individual has a robust enough social and academic experience (Reynolds, Sneva, & Beehler, 2010, p. 141). Essentially, "by being less dependent on extrinsic motivation for success, negative external events may be less likely to deter these college students from their goals," so long as they are able to maintain social and academic engagement ( Reynolds, Sneva, & Beehler, 2010, p. 141-142). In other words, just as extrinsic motivation decreases in the face of racism, likely because those extrinsic motivators are part of a larger social construct that includes racism, intrinsic motivation increases when a student is able to create his or her own personalized social construct with which to identify.
However, this increase in intrinsic motivation, like some minority women's ability to resist stress caused by sexist experiences, should not be taken as evidence that, for example, a little bit of racism might be a positive thing. Obviously, most serious researchers would not even propose this possibility, but it is nevertheless important to make this point if only because the minimal positive psychological traits that might arise in response to the perception of racism could easily be viewed as justification for a kind of "tough love" argument for allowing racism or racist attitudes to perpetuate. Again, while this might seem preposterous to any serious researcher, the history of racism in America and elsewhere is a history of legitimate scientific research being used and abused in order to further an otherwise unsupportable ideology. Just as evolutionary biology provided the veneer of science to theories of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century, so too could the research discussed here be twisted to support racist attitudes and policies; or, in a more likely scenario due to the general social stigma now applied to explicit demonstrations of racism, this research could be used to dissuade efforts to combat racism more aggressively.
By examining the psychological effects of racism on the individual, one is able to better understand the complex system of attitudes and actions that perpetuate racism on the micro and macro scale. This is because racism influences its victims above and beyond the kind of physical violence most commonly associate with historical racism. Racism forces minority individuals to expend far more of their emotional and mental reserves, because even if an individual does not internalize the racist ideology or implied self-concept that he or she experiences, the individual must nevertheless spend extra effort reacting and adapting. Furthermore, racism, like other abusive, oppressive, or threatening phenomena, conditions its victims towards negative affect in the future, further diminishing their ability to respond effectively while ensuring that they will have a harder time dealing with stressors of all kinds. These negative effects even extend beyond the individual experiencing racism firsthand, and children are particularly susceptible to these rippling effects. While there are some positive coping abilities that can result from the perception of racism, these abilities could quite easily be developed through other, less destructive means, and in no way reduce or obviate the very serious psychological (and ultimately physical) harm caused by racism.
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