Racial Discrimination & Adolescent Emotional Development

By Nakia Jackson
Racial perceptions form a vital part of self-identification.
Racial perceptions form a vital part of self-identification.

Adolescence is a time of self-definition, when young people look to society to help shape their identity. When movies, TV shows or their teachers express racial bias, it can be harmful to adolescents' developing self-esteem. Their peers might also express internalized racial bias or express racial bias against other groups. However, helping your child develop a healthy sense of identity can help her hold her head high regardless of what is said about her heritage.

How Racial Discrimination and Bias Reaches Adolescents

If you have recently allowed your child more unsupervised time outside the house or watching TV, your child might be exposed to racial bias and discrimination. The New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reports that "stop and frisk" policies disproportionately target young black and Latino men for police searches and harassment. According to researchers at Tufts University, "subtle racial biases are often expressed by characters on popular television shows, and that viewers not only pick up these attitudes but allow them to shape their own outlooks on race."

How Racial Discrimination and Bias Affects Adolescents

Researchers contributing to the Developmental Psychopathology collection found that racial discrimination can be its own source of stress. As reported in an article for the "Journal of Research on Adolescence," when teachers show racial bias, it can lower children's chances of academic success and when adolescents sense racial bias, they can become anxious, angry and depressed. When adolescents are worried about negative stereotypes, they might also lose motivation to do well academically. Perceptions of limited future job prospects because of race might lead adolescents to lose interest in academic achievement and career aspirations.

Positive Stereotypes Hurt, Too

Researchers at the University of Washington report that stereotypes about Asians include perceptions that they are intelligent and diligent. Teachers might express this bias implicitly, or even explicitly, believing it to be a compliment, according to the UW researchers. But ignoring the diversity among Asians might make it more difficult for Asian adolescents to speak up if they struggle academically or show interest in pursuits that run against stereotype.

Supporting Your Child's Healthy Development

Helping your child develop a healthful sense of self means helping them spot explicit and implicit bias, and countering biased images with healthier ones. Point out current instances of racial discrimination, and discuss strategies for facing bias when among friends or in the classroom. Consider how you talk about those of your race and others, and include positive images of people of all races in the art and entertainment you enjoy. Facing racial discrimination is a challenge, and your child will need your support to deal with it.

About the Author

Nakia Jackson has written for online publications since 2006, including columns for Sadie Magazine, Naseeb and Muslim Wake Up!. She has written on religion and beauty, crafts and music. Jackson's expertise stems from personal experience and her years at Berklee College of Music, pursuing a Bachelor of Music.