What do you do when feeling stressed? Do you read books? Meditate? Exercise? Talk with friends? Write in a journal? Make a to-do list?

Nearly every day, people face stressors. These can include conflict with friends, financial difficulties, and exams at school. When subjected to stress, individuals will use coping strategies—thoughts or behaviors for managing the effects of stress.

Black people face an additional type of stress: racism. Therefore, Black people who are regularly exposed to racial discrimination need coping mechanisms to manage race-based stress. How do they do it? In our study, we examined 26 published articles that tried to answer that question.

What is the Answer?

Black people use more than one strategy in response to racism. The two most frequently mentioned strategies were social support, such as talking with friends and family, and religion, which includes praying, going to church, and engaging spiritually.

The type of racist experience also influences the type of coping strategy that was used. When Black people face institutional racism, they tend to use active coping strategies—taking direct action to reduce the effects or distress resulting from the situation. When Black people face cultural racism, they tend to use collective coping and social support. When Black people face interpersonal racism, they tend to use spiritually-centered coping strategies.

We also observed gender differences in the coping strategies. Black women frequently use social support and religion to validate their experiences and find support. Overt strategies and covert strategies are also utilized. Overt strategies are confronting or speaking out and the covert ones are strategies that are not obviously observable, such as trying to blend in and modifying their own behavior to reduce barriers. We did not find uniform strategies among Black men. Various strategies were reported, such as planning, social support, acceptance, and substance use. We noted that passive strategies such as ignoring were more frequently used by men than women. This could be attributed to the ways society punishes Black men whose reactions and strategies are externally visible.

Do the Strategies Work?

After identifying the strategies, our team sought to evaluate their effectiveness in reducing stress levels. Some coping strategies are more functional than others. Ultimately, functionality depends on the desired goal: reduce emotional distress in the short term, or stop racial discrimination from occurring. We categorized the strategies into three types: dysfunctional, ambiguous, and functional.

  • Dysfunctional coping strategies can have harmful effects on an individual's well-being. An example is John Henryism. This strategy is observed among Black persons who compensate with high levels of effort to cope with long-term stressors such as discrimination. Prolonged use of this strategy can have negative physical impacts such as increased cardiovascular health risks.
  • Ambiguous coping can be helpful or harmful depending on the way the strategies are used. For example, avoidance (such as avoiding confrontation) is a survival skill for Black Americans who face racism. At certain times, confrontation can put Black people in dangerous situations. There are negative impacts related to confrontation including repressed anger, depression, and less autonomy. But there are also positive outcomes of confrontation including having agency and overcoming powerlessness, especially in the context of racial discrimination.
  • Functional coping strategies are the most optimal when coping with racism. Social support is one of the most beneficial tools against racial trauma. Social networks can lead to positive affirmation. Affirmation from others can be very effective when managing stress. Also, identity-affirming strategies like Africultural coping are favorable as they allow Black people to reclaim the value of their identity. Finally, religious practice provides individuals with meaning as to their role in the world and offers an established positive viewpoint on self-identity.

Empowerment and Social Change

Coping strategies will relieve emotional distress, but will not be useful in reducing racism, the fundamental cause of the problem. Social change will occur when strategies are directed at eliminating racism. This can be achieved through the promotion of empowerment which is also essential for well-being. Black people will feel better prepared to cope with racism when they understand how it works, when they feel secure with their identity, and when they have the tools to address racial discrimination when it presents itself. Racialized individuals must be empowered in order to progress toward the goal of eradicating racism.

For Further Reading

Jacob, G., Faber, S. C., Faber, N., Bartlett, A., Ouimet, A. J., & Williams, M. T. (2023). A systematic review of Black people coping with racism: Approaches, analysis, and empowerment. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 18(2), 392–415. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916221100509

Grace Jacob is a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa. She is interested in mental health within Black communities.