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3. What is Racial Anxiety? Talking Back to Colorblindness

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 25 Minutes

One of the key takeaways from the science of implicit bias is that our brains categorize people: gender and age across the world and then according to other identities a particular culture considers important. In some countries, religion will be the primary difference; in this country in the 21st century, we are most divided residentially and educationally by race and ethnicity.

Many people continue to assert that “colorblindness” is the way to address the harms linked to race — for more on this topic, Education Week has a series, “The Colorblindness of Schools Has Failed Children of Color” that includes short articles and podcasts.

Colorblindness is an ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity. While the goal of equal treatment is laudable — the implicit bias research shows that the method won’t work. Purported colorblindness can also be a way for people who are benefiting from current power dynamics to ignore the current injustice, unfairness, and racism in our society” (91)

To hear what racism continues to look like - and why colorblindness won’t be a way forward, watch Baratunde Thurston’s recent talk.

Rather than trying to be colorblind, we need to engage authentically with the ways inequalities linked to race and ethnicity play out. Bias is one way — another is that we are at risk of experiencing worry when we are interacting with people of another race or ethnicity. Racial anxiety refers to the worry that our difference will cause the interaction to go badly.

Not surprisingly, we are likely to experience this anxiety differently depending on our own racial or ethnic identity and how our previous interactions have gone. For people of color, experiences of bias — explicit and implicit — can lead to anxiety that during the cross-group interaction, discrimination, stereotyping, hostility, or invalidation of the person’s ideas or experiences. This anxiety, which is often experienced regularly, induces a physiological reaction similar to that produced by an actual physical threat; it can lead to emotional stress, cognitive fatigue, and have health effects.

For white people, the anxiety is often the worry that they will be presumed to be or perceived to be racist or prejudiced. Because racists are seen as immoral — this anxiety can be acute.

It may seem like white people should be anxious about being perceived as racist — isn’t that the real issue? But racial anxiety experienced by a person in a position of any power can harm the person they are interacting with. By diminishing their cognitive capacities, it reduces their ability to fully engage with other people, they may distance themselves, be less apt to share eye contact, and be at risk of being either cold or overly warm if they attempt to overcome the anxiety. 

When two people are experiencing anxiety in an interaction, both may be in fight or flight mode and the interaction is unlikely to go well. It can also lead people to active avoidance of cross-group interactions.

  1. How does what you learned about Implicit Bias and Racial Anxiety challenge colorblindness?
  2. How do people who consider themselves fair engage in behavior that causes harm without realizing it?

Social psychologist Jennifer Richeson and colleagues have conducted research to understand cross-group interactions — and specifically how students of color experience education in predominantly white colleges.  Given the difference in stereotypes linked to particular identities, students often have very different navigational challenges.  

For example, a 2010 study asked college students whether in a cross-group interaction, their primary goal was to be respected or to be liked.  The vast majority of Black and Latinx participants answered that respect was the primary goal; by contrast, white and Asian participants generally answered that being liked was primary.  The researchers found that the Black and Latinx students projected seriousness while white and Asian students projected warmth (the white students were often nice to the point of being ingratiating).  Not surprisingly, the interactions often led to misunderstandings and negative attitudes toward interaction partners.  What explains the difference?  Stereotypes.  Students who belong to racial or ethnic groups who experience negative stereotypes linked to respect or competence don’t assume they will be afforded respect.

The take-away from this study is that students who belong to groups that are not sufficiently represented as academically competent will be more inclined to enter cross-group interactions with the goal of establishing themselves as academic peers first.  

It is also important to note that women of color are at risk of experiencing “intersectional invisibility” - when a person experiences multiple identities that are subject to negative stereotypes.  In other words, there are stereotypes linked to gender and race or ethnicity - but the stereotypes linked to gender are often based upon white females and the stereotypes linked to race or ethnicity to men of color.  Women of color can experience a different set of stereotypes than either white women or men of different races or ethnicities.  For example, stereotype tropes of Asian women as passive, Latinx women as attitudinal, and Black women as angry have informed the lens through which people who identify as women within those groups are often seen, particularly in settings where they are underrepresented.

As we close this MLM, we invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the following from your own personal experiences:
  1. How, if at all, were you taught to talk about identity in school? At home?
  2. Is that in tension with what is being presented about colorblindness?

Whether you are engaging with mentees across lines of racial difference, understanding that they may be experiencing harm in cross-group interactions can be helpful in supporting their navigation. The stress caused by racial anxiety, especially in situations that are ambiguous in nature, can detract from focus on important tasks.

In interpersonal situations, we argue that those who hold dominant group identities need to do more of what we refer to as “racial navigation” so that people of color don’t have to carry this burden. In the past, many white people have been likely to not pay attention to their own racial identity and so have not been consciously aware of how they show up in cross-group interactions. Being aware that cross-group interactions may be a source of anxiety, whoever has more power in the interaction will hopefully take the steps to allay that anxiety by engaging with respect and authentic interest in the other person’s experiences and perspectives.

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #3!