Communication Currents

Coping with Racial Discrimination and Helping Those in Need

December 1, 2014
Intercultural Communication

Racial discrimination is a special type of communication stressor that can harm minorities’ physical and mental well-being. Among various coping strategies, seeking social support has been found to help racial minorities cope with discrimination. Our study revealed that in response to racial discrimination, college minority students who are less adapted to mainstream U.S. culture tend to have a stronger need for social support, but they are not more likely to seek assistance. They also tend to be less satisfied with the help they receive from others. Therefore, extra effort should be made to empower this group of people to seek support from friends and family when coping with racial discrimination. At the same time, this group would benefit from the creation of a more accepting environment that teaches the public how to provide more effective social support.

Despite institutional and social changes in favor of diversity and inclusion, acts of interpersonal racial discrimination, ranging from violent hate crimes and verbal assaults to offensive jokes and racially biased talk, continue to adversely affect people in our society. Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” or foolproof way to respond to racial discrimination. Coping without the help of close others can be particularly challenging. Individuals who report incidents to authorities might be called whistleblowers, complainers, troublemakers, or hypersensitive. Racial minorities who confront prejudiced people directly risk aggressive retaliation and damaged interpersonal relationships, and individuals who keep quiet often experience feelings of anxiety and isolation. 

A growing body of research indicates that seeking support from friends and family members can help people cope with negative effects of racial discrimination. Seeking support gives targets of discrimination an opportunity to break the silence about their experiences, vent their emotions, solicit advice, and develop a more resilient outlook. However, many people keep quiet about their experiences with racial discrimination and therefore do not seek support from individuals in their social network. Who is most at risk for coping alone? What factors might make a person more likely to seek support after experiencing racial discrimination? To what extent do targets of racial discrimination receive effective support from friends and family members?

To address these questions, we studied how cultural adaptation affects individuals’ need for social support (i.e., the degree to which targets of discrimination report they needed someone to help them make sense of the situation and validate their feelings), the way people actually cope with racial discrimination, and the quality of support they receive from others. Given potential language barriers, reduced access to mainstream institutional resources, and different levels of knowledge about the dominant culture, we reasoned that students who were less adapted to the dominant culture in the United States might experience more difficulty seeking and accessing social support than those who were more adapted to the dominant culture.

We surveyed 345 racial minority undergraduate and graduate students of diverse racial identities and nationalities from a large midwestern university in the United States. Approximately half of our participants were U.S. citizens; the rest of our sample came from around the world, including a wide range of countries such as China, Ethiopia, Peru, Thailand, Australia, the Bahamas, South Korea, Columbia, and India. We invited each person to recall and share a recent experience with interpersonal racial discrimination and discuss how he or she coped. Participants reported a wide variety of discriminatory acts they perceived to be the result of another person’s racial biases, such as racist name-calling, poor service at restaurants, racial profiling by police officers and security personnel, property damage, racist jokes, rejection from peers and potential dating partners, patronizing behaviors, and physical altercations.

Our results revealed that only 60 percent sought support after experiencing an act of racial discrimination, meaning that 40 percent remained silent. When controlling for people’s prior experiences with discrimination and the recalled incident’s perceived severity, we found an inverse relationship between cultural adaptation and support needs. Specifically, our results indicated that people who were less adapted to mainstream U.S. culture expressed a higher need for social support compared with those who reported being more adapted to the mainstream culture. Although cultural adaptation did not predict the decision to seek support, we found that students with lower levels of cultural adaptation were more likely to use disengagement coping strategies to deal with racial discrimination, such as rumination, withdrawal, and denial—strategies that prior research shows are less effective than actively seeking support.

Among the 60 percent who sought support from people in their social network, not all were satisfied with the assistance they received. In general, participants indicated they were only moderately pleased with the sufficiency of support from others—and that the supportive communication they received was only somewhat sufficient in helping them cope with their negative emotions and problem-based distress. A closer look at the data revealed that students who were less adapted to mainstream U.S. culture perceived the support they received to be less sufficient, sensitive, and effective than those with higher levels of cultural adaptation.

Interestingly, all of these findings held true regardless of the degree to which students identified with their heritage culture. In other words, the degree to which minority students felt connected to the dominant culture, not whether they identified with their heritage culture, best predicted the need for and evaluation of social support following acts of racial discrimination.

Collectively, the results from our study show how acculturation can provide meaningful information about the ways racial minorities may experience and cope with acts of discrimination. Specifically, minorities with lower levels of cultural adaptation tend to exhibit a higher need for social support; however, they are not more likely to seek assistance from others. Instead, they tend to cope with racial discrimination through disengagement behaviors like avoidance, denial, and remaining silent. For those who chose to seek support, minorities with lower levels of cultural adaptation were less satisfied with the help they received from others.

Given this information, what can be done to help minorities who are coping with racial discrimination? On one hand, efforts can be pursued to encourage and empower racial minority members with the communication skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy needed to seek support in response to discrimination. On the other hand, complementary efforts should be pursued at cultural, institutional, and community levels to ensure that targets of discrimination have access to high quality and sufficient social support. For example, instead of putting the burden of seeking support and coping solely on racial minority students, especially those with lower levels of cultural adaptation, we can explore how friends, family members, student organizations, and community groups who work with minority students can take a more active role in providing caring, culturally appropriate, and sensitive assistance. Recognizing the effect of cultural adaptation on racial minorities’ experiences and responses to discrimination, community leaders, organizations, researchers, and practitioners can develop workshops that train everyday people to provide more effective social support and foster culturally competent programs and services that prevent racial discrimination.

About the author (s)

Lisa K. Hanasono

Bowling Green State University

Assistant Professor

Lanming Chen

Essential Publications

Publishing Assistant

Steven R. Wilson

Purdue University