You may have heard terms like “racial trauma” and “minority stress” before. We’ll look at racism and mental health by exploring the fundamental concepts necessary to grasp the impact minority stress has on physical and mental health. Plus, we’ll discuss why these terms are relevant to understanding, protecting, and promoting good mental health.
What is minority stress?
The word “minority” refers to any group or community whose needs and experiences don’t fall into mainstream culture and society. Because dominant society doesn’t prioritize the needs and experiences of minorities, minority groups and communities are marginalized.
A minority could include people who identify as a member of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex (LGBTQI+), and differently-abled communities.
It doesn’t have to mean a literal, numerical minority either. Minorities can include anyone who has an identity or trait that others treat as insignificant. For example, people of color are the global majority, but in Western countries often subjected to negative marginalizing behaviors and attitudes.
The minority stress model posits that exposure to racial and other microaggressions contributes to diminished mental well-being in groups such as racial and gender/ sexual minorities. Numerous studies back this model.
Research has also shown that the negative impact is even more significant for folks with multiple marginalized identities. So, for example, someone who’s differently-abled and Indigenous is subjected to the harm of ableism (discrimination favoring physical ability) and racism (discrimination based on racial identity.)
What is intersectionality?
The negative effect for a differently-abled BIPOC person is cumulative. This means that the intersection of one marginalized identity with another yields a negative impact more significant than that of each identity. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw gave a name to this phenomenon when she coined the term “intersectionality.” We all have multiple identities, which may draw people to treat us differently.
Thus, while all LGBTQI+ people may experience some marginalization, this is likely increased for an LGBTQI+ person who also lives with a disability or is a person of color. Likewise, sometimes intersectionality can be protective—such as when an LGBTQI+ person also happens to be cisgender and from a high socioeconomic background, they would experience fewer marginalizing experiences.
Suppose you have intersectional, or overlapping, marginalized social and cultural identities. The resulting stress you experience resulting from these identities has a cumulative negative impact on both your mental and physical health.
What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are words, gestures, and actions that communicate discrimination in indirect or subtle ways. Sometimes well-intended efforts at diversity can exacerbate issues. One example is the “color-blind” ideology that aims to equalize experiences but ends up invalidating marginal experiences.
Unfortunately, the philosophy of color-blindness is dismissive and unrealistic. It fails to account for systemic historical issues and doesn’t respect positive differences. This perspective can make individuals feel responsible for mental stress instead of identifying the actual systemic or chronic stressors.
Other examples of microaggressions are words, gestures, and actions that point to assumptions about criminality. For example, a White person might clutch their bag when encountering a person of color, or a shop owner may follow a non-White person around in their shop. For more info, check out Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life.
A frequent microaggression experienced by Asian Americans is the “perpetual foreigner” assumption when Americans are assumed not to speak English or treated as outsiders in their own home country.
With this understanding, let’s look at the relationship between microaggressions and mental health.
How oppression impacts mental health
Someone with one or more marginal identities may experience many microaggressions each day. So, while they seem small, the stress caused by these experiences is significant—since the harm caused by this type of aggression is cumulative. Being frequently insulted, excluded, or harassed while trying to go about daily life causes fatigue and stress that impact mood and a sense of safety.
Over time, that stress can have a significant impact on mental health and emotional wellbeing. People sometimes refer to this as sort of a “death by a thousand paper-cuts” kind of experience. Here are some of the ways that oppression impacts members of LGBTQI+ and BIPOC communities.
Studies worldwide have indicated that youth who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pansexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning (or LGBTQI+) are at increased risk of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.
This is due to complex factors such as their increased likelihood to experience hostile home environments, harassment, physical attacks, and systemic inequality. Experiences such as being targeted for physical attacks due to gender identity are associated with suicidal ideation and risk.
Black, Indigenous, People of Color
The term “racial trauma” is often used to describe the experience of BIPOC people. What is racial trauma? It’s the minority stress experienced by members of a racial minority.
As author Mary Frances Winters describes in her book Black Fatigue, any person coping with chronic experiences of injustice will also experience the negative health impact of racism. This is particularly true for Black Americans who may have endured such experiences for generations.
Experiences of microaggressions are correlated with cultural mistrust, which negatively impacts help-seeking behaviors and a sense of well-being. Studies have also identified psychological distress linked to racial microaggressions in Asian and Latino populations.
Acknowledging the harm it caused, the American Psychiatric Association formally apologized in 2021 for a history of systemic racism, particularly toward BIPOC people, that led to discriminatory treatment in healthcare.
Beyond the harm caused to any one person, there’s also the matter of intergenerational patterns of stress and trauma. These have an impact not just on individuals but entire families.
In this way, systemic oppression or marginalization impacts health and psychosocial outcomes for many BIPOC people. These folks may be subjected to microaggressions and racism, and have parents and ancestors who are refugees, displaced, or maybe survivors of war, internment, or genocide.
Resources for minority healing
A powerful example of a community and family healing resource is the Family-Care, Community-Care and Self-Care Tool Kit. It’s offered by the Association of Black Psychologists and the Community Healing Network. The purpose of this toolkit is to comfort and inspire people of African ancestry during these challenging times. It “provides resources to help us take care of ourselves and each other, and strengthen our sense of community for the journey ahead.”
Another helpful option is The Radical Healing framework for healing from racial and ethnic trauma. The Racial Healing Handbook by Dr. Annieliese Singh can be used alone as a self-help resource. You may also want to bring it into therapy sessions to discuss with your mental health provider.
What is an ally?
Allyship is an active and ongoing process wherein a person from a position of greater privilege and power engages in re-evaluation and unlearning, seeking to assist in solidarity with a marginalized group.
Below are the recommendations from the Guide to Allyship. This is how you can use your privilege to fight for justice. You
- Take on the struggle as your own.
- Stand up, even when scared.
- Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those without it.
- Acknowledge that even though you feel pain, the conversation is not about you.
- Be willing to own your mistakes and de-center yourself.
- Understand that your education about justice is your choice and responsibility rather than someone else’s.
What allies can do to help
Simple everyday examples include a cisgender person using pronouns or speaking out against misgendering a peer in a meeting. This could also mean a White man advocating for diverse gender and race representation at a work panel or in hiring.
Every movement for justice and equality benefits community health, and every public health or justice movement benefits from allies and collaborators. If you’re looking for more information, check out the Guide to Allyship, an open-source guide to help allies be more effective and less harmful in efforts towards equality.
- Social structures such as systemic racism, ableism, and homophobia cause chronic stressors, which are sometimes intergenerational in impact.
- The cumulative impact of microaggressions from these stressors negatively impacts mental and physical health.
- Coping skills, positive identity, culturally adapted, and affirming treatments and community connections are helpful to mitigate the negative impacts of minority stress.
- Allies and healthcare professionals can join in allyship by making the fight for equality a personal responsibility.
- Barboza et al. (2016). Physical victimization, gender identity and suicide risk among transgender men and women, Preventive Medicine Reports. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335516300882
- Block (2016). The impact of color-blind racial ideology on maintaining racial disparities in organizations in The myth of racial color blindness: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact. Washington, D.C., U.S.A. https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4318136
- Dentato (2012). The minority stress perspective. https://www.apa.org/pi/aids/resources/exchange/2012/04/minority-stress
- Hernández & Villodas (2020). Overcoming racial battle fatigue: The associations between racial microaggressions, coping, and mental health among Chicana/o and Latina/o college students. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-57350-001
- Huynh et al. (2011). Perpetual Foreigner In One’s Own Land: Potential Implications For Identity And Psychological Adjustment. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3092701/
- Kendall & Cheon (2017). Racial microaggressions, cultural mistrust, and mental health outcomes among asian american college students. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-39469-001
- Lubsen (N.D.) The Impact of Sexual and Gender Microaggressions on LGBT Accessibility to Healthcare. https://medschool.ucla.edu/Workfiles/Site-Counting/The-Impact-of-Sexual-and-Gender-Microaggressions.pdf
- Martins et al. (2020). Effects of gendered racial microaggressions on the mental health of black women. https://www.scielosp.org/article/csc/2020.v25n7/2793-2802/en/
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- Torres & Taknint (2015). Ethnic microaggressions, traumatic stress symptoms, and Latino depression: A moderated mediational model. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-15459-001
- Wilson & Cariola (2020). LGBTQI+ Youth and Mental Health: A Systematic Review of Qualitative Research. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40894-019-00118-w
- Wilson et al. (2017). Exploring The Link Between Black Racial Identity And Mental Health. https://www.longdom.org/open-access/exploring-the-link-between-black-racial-identity-and-mental-health-2167-1044-1000272.pdf
- Wong et al. (2013). The What, the Why, and the How: A Review of Racial Microaggressions Research in Psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4762607/