Coping with Race-Related Stress

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As a student of color, you may experience additional frustrations as a result of racism, and this can lead to race-related stress. Racist actions usually involve some form of racial bias and discrimination. However, at times you may find yourself questioning whether you were a victim of a racist act. This is a common reaction because modern-day racism tends to be covert in nature. Additionally, perpetrators may not recognize their actions as racist because their behavior does not mimic the more overt forms of racism commonly seen in the past. The uncertainty that can accompany perceptions of racism is often due to a misunderstanding of the behaviors that constitute racism. To understand racism it may be helpful to understand the concepts of prejudice and discrimination.

When students of color experience racism, it not only causes problems in their social and economic lives, but also negatively impacts their physical and psychological health. Race-related stress refers to the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism. It is important to understand that you can experience race-related stress even if you were mistaken that a racist act occurred. Race-related stress reactions only require that a person believes that they were the victim of racism. Below is a listing of the detrimental effects of race-related stress:

Intense emotional reactions:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Helplessness-Hopelessness
  • Isolation
  • Paranoia
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Self-blame
  • Self-doubt

Ineffective coping:

  • Avoidance
  • Disengaging
  • Substance Use

Health Concerns:

  • Heart Disease
  • Hypertension
  • Muscle Tension
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Dietary/Digestive Disturbances

These psychological and physical effects can have a significant effect on your daily life. For example, if you feel isolated due to experiences of racism, you may be reluctant to interact with students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds or participate in campus activities such as student organizations, intramural sports, classroom discussions, and study groups. You may also experience a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, which involves the fear that one’s actions will confirm existing stereotypes about a person’s self-identified racial/ethnic group. Students of color who experience stereotype threat may begin to believe that their peers do not regard them as individuals, but as representatives of their racial/ethnic group. The anxiety that often accompanies stereotype threat can have a negative effect on your performance on academic tasks such as class participation, assignments, and exams. Stereotype threat can also lead to the imposter phenomenon if you internalize the negative racial stereotypes about the capabilities of your racial/ethnic group.

What is the Imposter Phenomenon?

The imposter phenomenon can occur if you do not believe that you are as intellectually capable as your peers or have the skills necessary to fulfill the requirements of your role as a student. These beliefs may lead you to dismiss any academic or career-related successes as based upon external factors such as beginner’s luck, extra work effort, networking with influential people, or filling a perceived quota (e.g., “I was only offered the internship because they needed more female interns”). The imposter phenomenon can occur across gender, racial/ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, and careers. Therefore, if you suffer from feelings of inadequacy, you are not alone. There are surgeons, lawyers, architects, graduate students, accomplished novelists, performers, historians, social media influencers, and professors who also struggle with the imposter phenomenon.

Effects of  the Imposter Phenomenon:

  • Anxiety
  • Denial of competence
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Life dissatisfaction
  • Overachievement
  • Paranoia
  • Sadness
  • Shame

Many people who experience the imposter phenomenon believe that they are the only ones who have these beliefs or feelings. They live in constant fear of the “truth” of their capabilities being discovered by their peers, superiors, students, partners, etc. and, therefore, work very hard to succeed and gain recognition while wearing a mask of self-confidence. People who feel like imposters are often skilled at convincing others that they are confident, self-assured, and proud of their accomplishments. However, a disconnect between their outward appearance and their inner emotional state contributes to a feeling of overall life dissatisfaction. As a college student, if you suffer from the imposter phenomenon, you may avoid answering questions in class or having a professor review a paper due to fear of negative evaluations. A successful completion of a project may cause only temporary happiness because the success is not recognized as proof of one’s capabilities. Likewise, an unsuccessful project may be perceived as validation of one’s perceived lack of intelligence and/or skill.

Recommendations for Coping with Race-Related Stress and the Imposter Phenomenon

  • Fortunately, there ways to combat the negative effects of race-related stress and produce positive outcomes.
  • Build a support network. You are not the only person dealing with race-related stress and connecting with other people with similar experiences and feelings can help you successfully navigate racism.
  • If spirituality plays an important role in your life, utilize your belief system as a way to cope with stress. This could involve connecting with others who share your spiritual beliefs, confiding in your spiritual leaders, or participating in your spiritual rituals (e.g., prayer, meditation).
  • Having a positive cultural identity and strong sense of self is particularly helpful in combating race-related stress, stereotype threat, and the imposter phenomenon. Take classes that focus on the historical experiences and contributions of your cultural group and join campus organizations that celebrate your cultural norms and ideals. Your campus’ Office of Minority Affairs or Multicultural Resource Centers are a great place to start forming connections.
  • Make positive reinterpretations of negative thoughts and reframe negative situations with a three step process:
  1. Identify negative feelings. For instance, a failing grade on an examination may lead to the negative thought “The admissions committee made a mistake when they accepted me.”
  2. Perform a reality check. Understand that your feelings can often distort the reality of the situation. Think of examples that counter the negative thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing. For instance, the admissions committee most likely made their decision because your past academic performance fit their acceptance criteria. Additionally, failure on one examination does not automatically indicate that you cannot succeed in any of your classes.
  3. Make a positive reinterpretation. You can reframe the initial negative thought by saying “The admissions committee accepted me because they believe in my potential to succeed” and “I know I am a highly capable person and I can improve my academic performance with additional support.” You can also reframe your experiences with racism with statements such as “This can only make me stronger” or “My elders have gone through this and persevered and so can I.”
  • Become involved in social action. Document acts of racism or intolerance. Don’t ignore or minimize your experiences, and think broadly about what could be an act of racism. It doesn’t have to be an overt act (e.g., a professor consistently not calling on you or minimizing your contributions, curriculum racially biased, etc.). Talk to someone you trust and report it, but be strategic. When attempting to change policy or procedures, it is important that you do this effectively by:
  1. Being clear about what it is you want to see change.
  2. Being clear about how you see that change being implemented.
  3. Making sure you talk to the person/department that will most likely be able to get you want you want.
  4. Being mindful about timing (e.g., when is it the time to share your experiences and frustrations, when is it time to work on change and demands, when is it time to negotiate).
  5. Don’t work in isolation. Get a team so that the work on these tasks aren’t so daunting for any one person.
  6. Calling people out when you witness acts of injustice and intolerance.
  7. Trying not to get discouraged. Change doesn’t happen overnight and movements are a long process. Remember that you are one cog in the wheel, and your contribution, no matter how small you may think it is, is a vital component of the movement.
  8. Not underestimating the power you have to make change. Student involvement has been instrumental in starting major movements throughout history.

Want to Know More?

Clance, P.R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.

Sue, D. (2003). Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.