The daily struggle against racial attacks and slights can be seen clearly in many aspects of the focus group transcripts. The intensity of the pressures are clear when the respondents speak of the means they use to cope with anger over racial discrimination. Resignation and reinterpretation of events are among the coping tactics. One respondent told of an incident in which a young black man came to her workplace to donate items to the service organization for which she works. Her white boss asked the young man why he was donating, and the latter answered that he had grown up in the service organization, though in another location. The woman concluded the story:
And he [her boss] said "Oh, I will have to call him. I know the person who directs the organization down there. I'll have to tell him that you didn't end up in jail." And the guy just, he's like, "I don't . . . know quite how to take [that]." But he [her boss] says this [stuff] all the time.
Although the woman recognizes her supervisor's comments to be stereotypical, she tries to understand his ignorance:
I think that he just doesn't know any better. . . . I've come to grips with him, I've worked for him for many years. . . . I let him know that I don't like his comments and that they're inappropriate, but there's nothing I can do about it. But I just think he doesn't know any better.
This woman's workplace situation exemplifies that of many African Americans, who often find ways to attribute the behavior of white coworkers to things other than overt racism in order to be able to work with them on a daily basis. Contrary to white notions of African American "paranoia," most frequently struggle to find explanations other than racism for the negative behavior of many whites.
Some participants spoke of trying not to let their anger over racism take root deeply in their lives. One government employee discussed this approach to discrimination:
To never get upset. Not to let that rage consume you, and after, and it really takes a lot to be really thoughtful, and to get beyond that, and, and try to educate them [whites]. I, that's what I've found works for me. And it helps me not to go home and to have that just simmer in me-that I can just leave it.
Middle-class African Americans, who often have high levels of interaction with whites as coworkers, find various ways to "leave" their anger, and may use a combination of coping strategies for discrimination. Extant research suggests that, before choosing a coping strategy, African Americans often reflect on the source of a white person's discriminatory behavior. Some discuss methods of mentally or physically withdrawing from a hostile situation, while others verbally or physically confront discriminatory whites. Sometimes African Americans attribute racist behavior to ignorance and choose to educate whites as a response to discrimination, which can give a sense of empowerment. Yet others describe a "shield" they must use in order to protect themselves in white society. Many discuss social networks, whether in the family, community, or church, as important buffers against the harmful psychological and physical effects of discrimination.
Many African Americans discuss the importance of "choosing one's battles" in regard to confronting racism. Most indicate they do not have the energy to confront each instance of discrimination. However, repressing emotions can be problematical. A too-restrained response to one's anger over workplace problems can bring even more suffering because of the feelings of impotence, which in turn can contribute to stress-related illness. Researchers Alexander Thomas and Samuel Sillen have suggested that finding some socially viable way of openly expressing anger at oppressors is better than self-derogation as a response to racial oppression.
This sense of empowerment is linked to position and resources by one female professional:
I think that we're some empowered people sitting around the table, and so we can do that. I think that there's a lot of people that don't feel that they have the power to do that. There's a lot of African Americans who don't feel that they have the power. I've seen it in the kids. . . . I've seen it in the workplaces. They don't-and so that rage just builds up. I see it in black men. They don't feel that they have the power. . . . and older people. They really don't. And that's, I think the issue that, that really needs to be spoken to. We can do it because we've made up in our minds that we're going to educate them. . . . But what about those people that really have not, you know, are not, are not feeling this strength and energy? What about those, those kids that I see every day? And particularly again, if they are black males. . . . You see, a lot of people, I think a lot of our people end up in jail or dead because they don't have the tools . . . that we're talking about, that we use to, to deal with it.
Teaching whites becomes part of the strategy for dealing with anger over racism. Middle class African Americans, it is suggested, have more resources and strength to deal with racism in this and other ways than do other African Americans. The sense of lacking power to fight back or to bring about change is likely to be central to the continuing reality of discrimination for many African Americans.
A government supervisor in the Southeast noted his approach to handling anger from job discrimination:
You're always going to feel anger, I mean, obviously . . . [in the] simplest things sometimes. Because, just because, if you can look and tell, if it's a black man and white man thing. . . . So you're gonna feel anger, but the thing is, when you put that rage in there . . . number one, it's your job. You're gonna do certain things. But it's my health. And it's my life. So I'm not gonna put myself in a position where you're gonna get me to that point. I know when we were talking about psychological and physical things. I'm just not gonna let you put that-I can wake up in the morning time, and I know, I don't even have to open my eyes, I know I'm a black man. I don't have to tell me. You don't have to tell me. So when I sit there and, and take this-and say, I'm sitting across a table from a, in a meeting, and there's a superior, and they happen to be white. In this case, of course, they may do something that's going to get me upset, but like I say, it's their job. Or if they pass me over, and, all I can look in is the variables. . . . But I control how I feel about it. I can control whether or not it affects my health or not. So, that's why, when you say, as far as rage and anger, you know how to override it.
This man believes he has developed strategies to control the anger he feels from racial tensions at work. It is impossible to know to what degree his strategies are successful, but he perceives his need to monitor his anger constantly for fear the anger coming from workplace discrimination will affect his health. The constancy of being reminded of being black is part of what racism means in U.S. society. One can never escape this, and during encounters with whites in the workplace, one's racial identity is in the front of one's mind. Some anger over mistreatment is inevitable, and the overarching strategy is often to "choose one's battles" and assess each situation separately for the appropriate response.
In some cases whites may intentionally provoke black workers to see if they will react strongly. After the government supervisor spoke, a female voice added: "This is a set up. . . . You get into rage, they just say, 'See, that's why we didn't give [a promotion] to her."' The ability to hold in one's anger and to control feelings is central to survival in a work world where strong reactions to animosity can affect one's job opportunities and economic success. Many African Americans must exert much effort to check emotions so as not to play into white stereotypes of black people being out of control. An engineer had also decided not to let rage have a negative affect on health: "So you see, these things like that, those things like that, those things make you upset . . . and the stress does make a difference, I think it probably takes five years off your life, to tell you the truth, if you let it get to you." An administrative secretary in the Midwest echoed this sentiment about how to deal with racially generated stress: "You learn how to deal with it. . . . You sit up there, and you be mad all day long and that's not good for you and you end up dead. I'm not dying from them."
A victim of discrimination frequently shares the account with family and friends in order to lighten the burden. African Americans often rely on their families and community institutions (e.g., churches) as part of their coping mechanisms for dealing with recurrent discrimination at work and elsewhere. In several focus groups the participants repeatedly noted or underscored these critical sources of social support. One teacher commented on bringing the stress of racism home with her, "I think I bring it home with me, I do. But, I have a good partner here, who listens . . . and, you know, I tell him all the problems, when it's happened. And I get feedback from him. And I get it all out, and that, I think that's good."
Similarly, a male respondent in the Southeast said his wife was his major source of support in dealing with stress from racial animosity:
I'd say oftentimes I've brought it home. Because I don't share that stuff with my work group, but I can share it with my wife, and she'll listen and give me appropriate feedback, and help me get through that. And you know I get the bike out, and I'll ride, or take the kids and go somewhere, or take me a good, hot, steamy shower. And get a back rub, or something. [Others chuckle.] And that kinda thing. Settle for that!
Numerous focus group participants indicated that they told their families and friends about discriminatory events in employment and other settings, which accounts spread both knowledge and pain through social networks and communities.
Several respondents mentioned how their families of origin raised them to recognize and deal with racial hostility and discrimination. A secretary stated that:
I think my family is very supportive. . . . [m]y father is more like, "Maybe you should ignore it and turn the other cheek," where my mom is like, "Report it." You know, so I . . . get it from both sides. . . . I think these are things that I should tell them, and these are also things that they should relate to me about their experience so that I can distinguish what is racism, what is prejudice, and how to deal with it. . . . I think we have a lot of individuals today who don't even know [how to recognize racism]. . . . [s]omebody in that family should have brought that out to these individuals. . . . [t]his is important for families to sit around, and let them know. This is another way of communication to bring it out so they don't have to bring it into the workplace and be angry.
Another woman, a purchasing agent, agreed with this respondent, and added that her family "told us different stories that have happened to them, so we can distinguish between what is and what is not [racism] . . . . [t]hey give you an example of subtle prejudice and racism . . . ." Several parents in the focus groups noted the importance of preparing their children for racism and its torments and frustrations.
One should note the cumulative impact of racial animosity and discrimination reported throughout our interviews. This accumulating impact likely accounts for much of the anger and rage expressed by the focus group participants. The problem is not just a particular racial incident but the steady pattern of incidents over long periods of time and across many life spaces. Recurring discrimination may eventually erode the coping skills of many African Americans and cause them increased illness or problems in families. In one study, a retired schoolteacher in a southwestern city recounted her experience with a racist epithet yelled by a clerk in a mall shop, then characterized the many recurring incidents of racism as the "little murders every day" that have made her long life so difficult. Particular instances of discrimination in workplaces or elsewhere may seem minor to some outside (especially white) observers, particularly if they are only considered in isolation. However, when blatant racist actions and overt mistreatment combine with discrimination in more subtle and covert forms, and when these discriminatory practices accumulate over weeks, months, and years, the effect on African Americans is more than what a simple summing of the impact of particular incidents might suggest. There is often a significant multiplier effect from recurring racial hostility on a person's work, health, and social relationships.
Although their specific strategies for dealing with racism differ, there was a general consensus among the respondents that the anger generated by racism in the workplace must generally be dealt with by African Americans themselves, who can expect little, if any, support from white coworkers and supervisors. A nurse described the lack of concern for racism shown by white supervisors:
I think that most supervisors, managers, [the] higher echelon knows about racism in the workplace. And I think some of them leave it up to lower managers to do something about it even when they discuss it, and some of them justleave it, period. And then some have diversity groups . . . or seminars or things . . . but racism is so prevalent I just think that it's going to be hard to get rid of.
The costs of racial discrimination encompass the time and effort put into dealing with that discrimination. The responses of African Americans to racial stress vary, with some using aggressive countering tactics and others withdrawing from the situation. Sometimes the stress forces the costly response of withdrawal. One woman, working in corporate administrative services, noted her response to harassment:
The way I deal with it is I try to stay out of the office as much as I can . . . even outsiders who come in the office, they can sense the air is tight. . . . [a]nd it's all because of our boss. And it's not just racial harassment, it's sexual harassment.
Several female respondents described how racial marginalization at work was amplified by the sexist behavior of white male coworkers and supervisors.
Another woman, who now works at a college, described racially related stress and why she quit her previous job in a store:
When the black customers would come into the store to possibly return merchandise, and maybe not have a receipt to accompany that purchase, they were asked . . . "Do you think you could go home and find it [the receipt]? Well, when was it purchased?" They were denied adequate assistance. But when the white people would come into the store, it was like, "Oh, well, can I credit it to your [store credit account] or Visa?" . . . [I]t was always, with the black person, it's like, "Well, where did you buy it? Well, take it back to the store that you bought it from," although you can take any of that merchandise to any store, because that's policy. . . . I was just amazed by the kind of things that would occur. And that's a reason why I no longer work there, because I could no longer work for a company that discriminated against my race. . . . [T]hey did it blatantly and they really didn't care.
Whatever the source of stress at work, its consequences are serious. What is noteworthy about racial stress is that it generally comes on top of the other frustrations in the workplace. Note too that this woman's frustration and anger were generated by what was happening, not to herself, but to other African Americans.