“…numbness is a quality of transgression.” (Kapil, 2001)
“Addiction is often seen as a way to find sanctuary, a way out of the feelings of powerlessness.” (hooks, 2004)
Some folks respond to the stressor of racism with fatalism and resignation, passively accepting their racialized reality. This is referred to as learned helplessness (Seligman, 1974, 1992; Carver et al., 1989; Carver et al., 1993). Others exhibit depression (Isaacowitz & Seligman, 2007), while others still respond by striking out at those around them with aggressive behaviour (Hoobler & Brass, 2006; Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000).
Another response is a lack of impulse control, leading to excessive patterns of eating, smoking, gambling, and alcohol and drug use (Tice et al., 2001; O’Connor & Conner, 2011; McClernon & Gilbert, 2007; Wood & Griffiths, 2007; Grunberg et al., 2011), while many people develop other, varied defense mechanisms - a term for internal methods of distorting a threatening reality so that it doesn’t seem so threatening - in response (Vaillant, 1994; Aldwin, 2007). Blaming oneself is a common response – the tendency to become highly self-critical (Ellis, 1973, 1987).
The racial stressor also takes its toll on the ability to perform effectively on a task at hand (Baumeister, 1984). Being surrounded by faces that don’t look like yours and knowing that you are being seen and judged differently leads to a level of self-consciousness that disrupts attention. This and the stress response can lead to burnout (Maslach & Leiter, 1997) - a physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and lowered sense of self-efficacy that can be brought on gradually by chronic stress.
Racism can therefore be understood as a self-perpetuating wheel of oppression, designed to keep a racialized person forever one-down, both out in the world and - perhaps most perniciously - within our own bodies.
Aldwin, C. M. (2007). Stress, coping, and development: An integrative perspective (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 610–620.
Carver, C. S., Pozo, C., Harris, S. D., Noriega, V., Scheier, M. F., Robinson, D. S., et al. (1993). How coping mediates the effect of optimism on distress: A study of women with early stage breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 375–390.
Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267–283.
Ellis, A. (1973). Humanistic psychotherapy: The rational-emotive approach. New York: Julian Press.
Ellis, A. (1987). The evolution of rational-emotive therapy (RET) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). In J. K. Zeig (Ed.), The evolution of psychotherapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel
Grunberg, N. E., Berger, S. S., & Hamilton, K. R. (2011). Stress and drug use. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health (pp. 111–121). New York, NY: Springer Publishing.
Hoobler, J. M., & Brass, D. J. (2006). Abusive supervision and family undermining as displaced aggression. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 1125–1133.
hooks, b. (2004). We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. Routledge, New York.
Isaacowitz, D. M., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). Learned helplessness. In G. Fink (Ed.), Encyclopedia of stress. San Diego: Elsevier.
Kapil, B. (2001). The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Kelsey Street Press, CA.
Marcus-Newhall, A., Pedersen, W. C., Carlson, M., & Miller, N. (2000). Displaced aggression is alive and well: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 670–689.
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (1997). The Truth about Burnout. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
McClernon, F. J., & Gilbert, D. G. (2007). Smoking and stress. In G. Fink (Ed.), Encyclopedia of stress (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
O’Connor, D. B., & Conner, M. (2011). Effects of stress on eating behavior. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health (pp. 111–121). New York, NY: Springer.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1974). Depression and learned helplessness. In R. J. Friedman & M. M. Katz (Eds.), The psychology of depression: Contemporary theory and research. New York: Wiley.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. New York: Freeman.
Tice, D. M., Bratslavsky, E., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: If you feel bad, do it! Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 53–67.
Vaillant, G. E. (1994). Ego mechanisms of defense and personality psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 44
Wood, R. A. & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). A qualitative investigation of problem gambling as an escape- based coping strategy. Psychology & Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 80(1), 107–125.
Thoughts on Therapy and Mental Health