Public Release: 

Youth who experience discrimination carry higher stress burden

Center for Advancing Health

People's beliefs that they are being treated badly because racial or gender bias increases their stress levels, and may lead to increased emotional and behavioral problems, according to a study of black and white youth.

Understanding how race and gender affect youths' well-being "is necessary not only for promoting optimal individual development, but also for meeting the nation's social and economic needs," says lead study author David L. DuBois, Ph.D., of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. DuBois conducted the research while at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Previous studies have focused on older study participants, but little is known about how younger age groups are affected by discrimination or prejudice, according to the study, which is published in the September/October issue of Child Development.

DuBois and his colleagues administered a series of questionnaires to 350 students in grades 5-8. This group of students included comparable numbers of blacks and whites, females and males. One survey, which included questions like "Were you called names or insulted at school about your race/ethnicity" and "Were you treated unfairly at school because you are a girl/boy," was designed to measure discriminatory experiences and how study participants were affected by them, while others measured major life stressors, racial and gender identity, self-esteem and behavior.

The researchers found significant differences among the student groups. Black study participants, both males and females, reported more experiences with discrimination and prejudice. The study setting, a Midwestern school district in which blacks were a minority in both student body and staff, may have contributed to these higher perceived levels, according to the study.

"In this context many black youth may not have felt adequately supported in their efforts to deal with situations involving perceived victimization or unfair treatment on the basis of race," DuBois says.

The black students who reported higher levels of discrimination were more likely to have emotional problems, the researchers found. Such problems may stem from internalized anger, according to findings from other studies.

The researchers also found that the black participants in their early teens reported feeling a stronger sense of racial identity than same-age whites. The new study and previous studies have found that at this age, blacks tend to have higher self-esteem than whites. DuBois and his colleagues found that a strong racial identity is important in helping to enhance the self-esteem of black youth.

Previous study results are mixed as to how a strong racial identity affects stress coping. Some researchers have found that although affiliations with racial or gender groups can act as an ego booster, they may also be a double-edged sword when brushes with prejudice lead to feelings of shame associated with this identity. DuBois and his colleagues found in their study that experiences of perceived gender discrimination were linked to less positive feelings of gender identity and lower self-esteem for study participants. But other studies have found stressful experiences involving race or gender can also strengthen one's racial or gender identity.

White males reported experiencing less discrimination than blacks and fewer daily hassles relating to gender than girls did. White boys also reported having a more positive view of their gender than girls did. However, they were not immune to gender and race challenges, perhaps experiencing a sort of "reverse discrimination," according to the study.

"By early adolescence, white males can be expected to be aware of criticism of the advantages they enjoy in contemporary society and to be exposed to situations in which others respond negatively to them on this basis," DuBois says.

The researchers noted that black females were a particularly vulnerable group, as potential recipients of both gender and racial bias. But in this study, black females did not report higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems compared with the black males and white respondents. The researchers suggest that these youth may have been bolstered by the strong racial identity and high self-esteem levels reported by the black youth study participants.


The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

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