Racial Anxiety

What it is:

“Racial anxiety” refers to the heightened levels of stress and emotion that we confront when interacting with people of other races. People of color experience concern that they will be the subject of discrimination and hostility. White people, meanwhile, worry that they will be assumed to be racist. Studies have shown that interracial interaction can cause physical symptoms of anxiety and that our non-verbal behaviors—making eye contact, using welcoming gestures or a pleasant tone of voice, for example—can be affected as well. When everyone in a conversation is anxious that it will turn negative, it often does. This causes a kind of feedback loop where the fears and anxieties of both white people and people of color are confirmed by their everyday interactions.

Why it matters:

One obvious way that racial anxiety affects our daily lives is in the aggravation of existing racial tensions. While this may seem small in comparison to larger structural challenges, racial anxiety affects interactions with teachers, employers, law enforcement, and healthcare providers. Racial anxiety also affects many areas of our lives in ways that are subtle but pervasive. In health care, for example, studies using patients of color and doctors of other races, researchers found that patients will have shorter visits with white doctors and report less positive interactions.

What can be done about it:

Over the long term, diversity, integration, inclusion and greater contact between people of different races will go a long way towards lessening racial anxiety. In particular, positive interracial contact has been shown to increase positive impressions of people of other races. Studies show these interactions will be most successful when shared identity is affirmed prior to recognizing difference. Ignoring difference completely, however, is likely to create a scenario in which subconscious anxieties and stereotypes can flourish.

Learn more:

To find out more about how stereotype threat, implicit bias, and racial anxiety impact the lives of black men and boys, read our report Transforming Perception.