Overt and subtle racial discrimination and mental health

Published on June 1, 2007 at 10:50 PM · No Comments

Subtle racism - which can include social slights and ambiguous remarks that are hard to pin down - is more dangerous to mental health than overt discrimination, according to a study of 180 Korean immigrants living in Canada.

“We found that the subtle form of discrimination has a greater impact on psychological distress such as symptoms of depression and anxiety,” said lead author Samuel Noh, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

The study, which appears in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health , involved a survey of mostly middle-aged Korean immigrants now living in Toronto. While the participants' reports of overt discrimination related to moods that were less positive, only subtle discrimination showed a connection with actual psychological symptoms.

“It's easier to shrug off overt discrimination,” Noh said. “You can attribute it to irrational behavior on the part of the other person. You don't have to examine yourself or the situation too closely.”

Overt discrimination — such as racist remarks — is a clear form of prejudice, but subtle discrimination is harder to pinpoint. For example, if your colleagues invite others to dinner but not you, it is hard to know if it is because they've known each other for a long time, because they don't like you or because they are uncomfortable with people of your race.

The study found that while the effects of overt discrimination related to simply experiencing it, the effects of subtle discrimination could influence how the person thought about what had happened.

“Subtle discrimination mostly occurs in interactions with people who are close to you —like colleagues, your manager, your friends — and it's not very clear or explicit,” Noh said. As those experiencing the discrimination try to determine what is going on, they are likely to examine their social role, including whether people around them accept them truly. “If you are in a situation where you have to continuously appraise your abilities or your quality as a person, obviously, that would affect your self-esteem,” Noh said.

Other research has found that depressed people tend to personalize rejection and see it as directed at their own individual failings. Noh suggested that if immigrants instead recognize the role that subtle racial discrimination can play, this “may serve as a protective factor.”

David Takeuchi, a professor of sociology and social work at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, said that research on African-Americans indicates that while racism does affect their mental health, it has a greater effect on their physical health than it does on victims of prejudice who are not African-American.

“Unfortunately, discrimination for African-Americans is more normalized,” he said. “They may have developed a better way of coping with the psychological effects. Asian immigrants may not have had that experience because they may have come from a situation in which they were the majority.”

Takeuchi said the new study “continues the documentation that shows that unfair treatment and discrimination can have powerful effects on people's health. It's a well-crafted study and Noh and his colleagues are doing pioneering work.”

The American Journal of Public Health is the monthly journal of the American Public Health Association. Visit www.apha.org for more information. Complimentary online access to the journal is available to credentialed members of the media. Contact Olivia Chang at APHA, (202) 777-2511 or olivia.chang@apha.org

Noh S, Kaspar V, Wickrama KAS. Overt and subtle racial discrimination and mental health: preliminary findings for Korean immigrants. Am J Public Health 97(7), 2007.

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