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Tuesday, 24 Nov 2020

What are the Psychological Impacts of Racism?

By Dr Becky Spelman

Racism remains a persistent problem in many societies, yet the psychological impacts of racism remain poorly understood.

In fact, these impacts can be profound, even in the case of people who experience relatively subtle instances of racism, and even in societies in which the most egregious forms of racism are explicitly outlawed.

Most people are outraged by overt expressions of racism, such as when people physically and/or verbally attack others because of physical or ethnic difference. Clearly, these incidents are very traumatic and damaging.

However, equally damaging can be the steady drip of what can be referred to as micro-aggressions: for example, when someone is routinely followed around a shop by a security guard, purely because of how they look, or when they walk down the street, and others automatically step away from them or clutch their handbags or wallets closer.

Being told that something that is natural about your appearance is wrong, ugly or unacceptable is a common occurrence for victims of racism: for example, in the United States, most black women chemically straighten their hair, at least partly because natural Afro hair is held to be “unprofessional”, and wearing a natural look can hold them back at work.

Similarly, in the UK, and elsewhere, black children have been sent home from school simply for wearing their Afro hair in traditional styles. The impact of being told that your natural appearance, over which you have limited control, is somehow “wrong” can be devastating.

The result of racism—whether we are talking about macro or micro aggressions, or both—can be profound on the individuals, and on the communities, that suffer from it.

Living with racism means living with chronic stress. Someone who regularly experiences racism lives in a world in which going to the shop for some basic necessities, or even just walking down the street on the way to school or work, can be a difficult experience. Because they are always stressed, and therefore in a constant state of high alert, their cortisol and adrenaline levels are always higher than they should be for optimal health.

The impact of chronic stress can be terrible, aggravating underlying health issues, and even contributing to the deterioration of diseases such as diabetes, irritable bowel disorder, and many more—as well as to social and personal issues such as marriage breakdown and positive relationship formation.

Living with racism can seriously impact on the individual’s ability to interact with society in a healthy and functional way. Going for regular health checks, attending parent-teacher meetings, and many other routine interactions with others in society are all much more difficult if they are likely to experience racism in the process. Over time, negative experiences in these areas can lead to the person avoiding potential sources of stress—and in the process, also potentially missing out on important information about their own health, education, and so on.

Most of all, racism has a profound, damaging, and lasting impact on the people who are the primary targets of it. It impacts on their mental health, their physical health, and often their prospects in the areas of education and work.

However, racism also has a noxious impact on society as a whole, contributing to a lack of social cohesion, an “us and them” attitude, and to verbal and physical violence that can spill over into all areas of life. Therefore, tackling racism head-on benefits not just those who suffer from it, but all of society.


For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.


Harrell, S. P. (2000). “A Multidimensional Conceptualization of Racism-related Stress: Implications for the Well-being of People of Color”,American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 42–57.

Nyborg, Vanessa M.  and Curry, John F.  (2003) “The Impact of Perceived Racism: Psychological Symptoms Among African American Boys”, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 32:2, 258-266,

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