Racial Anxiety

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By Anastasia M. Boles, UA Little Rock, William H. Bowen School of Law

As law professors, we care deeply about our students.  We put a tremendous amount of effort into our teaching, advising student organizations, and serving as formal and informal mentors.  Unfortunately, science has taught us that unconscious racism may be operating to degrade our student interactions. Many of us are familiar with the term “implicit bias.”  Over the last few decades, social psychologists have explored the ways implicit preferences and biases permeate society, including criminal justice, health, and education.  Thus, unconscious racism may be interfering with our student interactions.

While lesser known than implicit bias, a common consequence of unconscious racism is “racial anxiety,” which is the unconscious anxiety we may experience or exhibit when interacting with a person of a different race.  For example, racial anxiety can cause undetectable physical changes in our bodies such as nervousness, discomfort, stiffness, and decreased eye contact.  The experience of unconscious racial anxiety sets up a vicious cycle; we unconsciously minimize interactions that have made us uncomfortable in the past, even if we cannot name the source of the discomfort. Racial anxiety expresses differently depending on race – people of color may be anxious about experiencing racism; whites may fear saying the wrong thing, or being labeled a racist.  Whatever the cause, as our cognitive resources are directed to mitigating any racial anxiety we are experiencing, the quality of our personal interaction with the differently-raced person can degrade.[1]

Racial anxiety is likely present in the halls and classrooms of law schools as well.  Despite our best intentions, law professors may experience racial anxiety symptoms in cross-racial conservations and interactions with our students.  At the same time, our differently-raced students may experience racial anxiety as they interact with us.  Consider this common scenario: a white law professor and a student of color meet outside of class for the first time to review an exam, talk about an issue from class, or discuss a paper.  Racial anxiety can affect the professor’s ability to build rapport with the student, appear open and friendly, evaluate the student’s learning needs, engage the student’s questions, and build trust.  The student of color, if also affected by racial anxiety, is less able to ask questions, absorb feedback, and seek mentoring.  If either the law professor or law student experienced unconscious racial anxiety during the meeting, future interactions between the professor and student may be affected.  Now imagine the potential for racial anxiety to disrupt the law school classroom where a sensitive issue related to race comes up in class discussion.  Racial anxiety may degrade the ability or willingness of the professor to engage the issue.  The ensuring student discussion could suffer.  Our students require our full attention; if racial anxiety is depleting the attention we give, we should do something about it.

What can we do?  If racial anxiety operates in our unconscious minds, can we ever hope to banish it?  The great news is that we can.  To combat racial anxiety, psychologists recommend that we start by increasing our cross-racial interactions with our students.  Psychologists call this “intergroup contact.”  Strategies such as encouraging students to attend office hours to increase familiarity, attending and supporting student events with differently-raced students, and increasing the amount and depth of conversations with differently-raced students can help.  During cross-racial interactions, seek to understand cultural differences as well as identifying similarities; the goal is to recognize and appreciate the varying cultural backgrounds of our students – not minimize them.  The more law teachers and law students from different racial backgrounds interact with one another, the less potential for racial anxiety to disrupt those interactions.

[1] For more information about racial anxiety see here, and here.

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