How to Deal with Racism

Has a comment about race left you thinking “Did that just happen?” These incidents of microaggression can be painful and confusing. Savvy Psychologist has 6 tips to deal with racist comments or actions.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #57

Tip #4: If You Decide to Educate, Make it About the Words or Actions - Not the Person

If you’re going to have a serious conversation, focus on the words that were said or the action that happened in order to have a more effective dialogue. Don’t make it personal. “You’re racist” basically only has two outcomes: defensiveness or escalation. 

On the other hand, “That phrase might get you in trouble” or “That question makes a lot of assumptions,” or “Saying that lumps every person of my color together,” takes the spotlight off the speaker and shines it fully on the words, which makes a real conversation more likely to happen.

Tip #5: Be Proud of Who You Are

There are two schools of thought regarding whether a strong, proud ethnic identity helps you bounce back from discrimination or not. One theory hypothesizes that, if race or ethnicity is a central pillar of your identity, then experiencing discrimination that attacks that core would be particularly damaging.  

However, the other theory, called Social Identity Theory, was developed by the pioneering social psychologist Henri Tajfel. His entire family was killed in the Holocaust, which led to his pioneering work studying ingroups, outgroups, and the psychology of prejudice.

Social Identity Theory states that we each affiliate with a variety of possible groups and tend to band together with those like us. Some of the groups we choose - anyone who’s ever been through high school and was a band nerd, skater, druggie, jock, or goth knows how this works.  

But some of the groups we’re born into. These include gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, socioeconomic status, disability, and, of course, race. However, according to Tajfel, once you’re part of an indentified ingroup, you tend to focus on the positive aspects of the group. This both raises self-esteem and invests you in highlighting the positive aspects of your group.

Thus, folks with strong racial identity are essentially committed to feeling proud to be a member of their group, even (or especially) after experiencing a slight based on that very membership.

And research plays it out. A number of studies across racial groups, like African-Americans, and ethnic groups, like Filipino- or Korean-Americans, have found that strong ethnic identity protects mental health in the face of discrimination.

This is why ethnic student associations, civil rights organizations, and nonprofits, or historically Black, Asian, Latino, or Native American institutions and churches are so important. It’s not about excluding “them,” it’s about creating a community of “us.”  (And the reason it’s not OK for whites to do the same is because the larger society is already that community of “us.”)

Tip #6: Turn to Your Family

A 2008 study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology examined stress and successful ways to cope with it in over 200 African-American participants. The study found two important things: first, race-related stress was an even greater risk factor for psychological distress than stressful events like financial problems or trouble with in-laws.  

The researchers reasoned that this might be because stressful events are usually over within a few weeks or months, plus there are concrete steps you can take to handle things like financial problems. Racism, on the other hand, is relatively constant and less controllable.  

The second important finding was that what the researchers dubbed “family resources” - things like family cohesion, family members being able to ask for what they want, and involvement in one another’s lives - was linked to lower levels of race-related stress.  

For you, your family may be the family you were born into, or it may be the family of friends you’ve surrounded yourself with over the years. Either way, it turns out family support is key to hold you up when racist interactions push you down.  

That's all for now. Next week we’ll talk about how to be an anti-racist ally, what to do if you’re accidentally on the committing end of a microaggression, and why you shouldn’t claim to be colorblind.  

A final note: You may be curious about my background (or not at all, in which case just skip this part). My mother is Okinawan-American and my father is white, of Norwegian and English ancestry. (For listeners in Hawai’i or California, I’m hapa).  

Most Asian people can tell I’m “something,” though at Asian-American student conferences I’ve been asked “Why are you here?” When I was little, folks thought my mom was the nanny or that my dad had adopted me. It’s a funny existence and I’ve slipped in and out of other people’s projected identities my whole life - I’ve been assumed to be Latina, Middle Eastern, Filipino, Korean, Italian, the list goes on.  

All this notwithstanding, for the Savvy Psychologist podcast, I rely, as always, on the science (check out those kickin' references below). Plus, most of you have figured out that no matter my proud racial background, I am also fundamentally...a big nerd. Thanks for listening!


Get more savvy by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get the episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter.  Plus, follow me on Facebook and Twitter.


Barrow, F.H., Armstrong, M.I., Vargo, A., & Boothroyd, R.A. (2007).  Understanding the findings of resilience-related research for fostering the development of African American adolescents.  Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 16, 393-413.

Lee, R. M. (2005). Resilience against discrimination: Ethnic identity and other-group orientation as protective factors for Korean Americans. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 36–44.

Mossakowski, K. N. (2003). Coping with perceived discrimination: Does ethnic identity protect mental health? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44, 318–331.

Neblett, E., Shelton, J. N., & Sellers, R. M. (2004). The role of racial identity in managing daily racial hassles. In G. Philogene (Ed.), Race and identity: The legacy of Kenneth Clark. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

Sellers, R. M., Caldwell, C. H., Schmeelk-Cone, K. H., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2003). Racial identity, racial discrimination, perceived stress, and psychological distress among African American young adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44, 302–317.

Sue, D.W.  (2010).  Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.  Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C., & (2001). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In M.Hogg & D. Abrams (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 94–109). New York: Psychology Press.

Utsey, S.O., Giesbrecht, N., Hook, J. & Stanard, P.M. (2008).  Cultural, sociofamilial, and psychological resources that inhibit psychological distress in African Americans exposed to stressful life events and race-related stress.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 49-62.

Yip, T., Gee, G. C., & Takeuchi, D. T. (2008). Racial discrimination and psychological distress: The impact of ethnic identity and age among immigrant and United States-born Asian adults. Developmental Psychology, 44, 787-800.

Chess piecesfishbowl and two fishbowls images corutesy of Shutterstock.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.