For many people, discrimination is an everyday reality. Discrimination is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation.
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Discrimination is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation. That’s the simple answer. But explaining why it happens is more complicated.
The human brain naturally puts things in categories to make sense of the world. Very young children quickly learn the difference between boys and girls, for instance. But the values we place on different categories are learned – from our parents, our peers and the observations we make about how the world works. Often, discrimination stems from fear and misunderstanding.
Stress and health
Discrimination is a public health issue. According to the 2015 Stress in America Survey, people who say they have faced discrimination rate their stress levels higher, on average, than those who say they have not experienced discrimination. That’s true across racial and ethnic groups.
Chronic stress can lead to a wide variety of physical and mental health problems. Indeed, perceived discrimination has been linked to issues including anxiety, depression, obesity, high blood pressure and substance abuse. 1
Discrimination can be damaging even if you haven’t been the target of overt acts of bias. Regardless of your personal experiences, it can be stressful just being a member of a group that is often discriminated against, such as racial minorities or individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
The anticipation of discrimination creates its own chronic stress. People might even avoid situations where they expect they could be treated poorly, possibly missing out on educational and job opportunities.
Discrimination, big and small
- The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.
- The Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, sex, ethnic origin, age and disabilities.
Unfortunately, discrimination still occurs. According to Stress in America Survey results, issues related to employment are the most commonly reported experiences of major discrimination across ethnic groups.
Yet experts say that smaller, less obvious examples of day-to-day discrimination – receiving poorer service at stores or restaurants, being treated with less courtesy and respect, or being treated as less intelligent or less trustworthy – may be more common than major discrimination. Such day-to-day discrimination frequently comes in the form of “microagressions” such as snubs, slights and misguided comments that suggest a person doesn’t belong or invalidates his or her experiences.
Though microagressions are often subtle, they can be just as harmful to health and well-being as more overt episodes of major bias. People on the receiving end of day-to-day discrimination often feel they’re in a state of constant vigilance, on the lookout for being a target of discrimination. That heightened watchfulness is a recipe for chronic stress.
Dealing with discrimination
Focus on your strengths. Focusing on your core values, beliefs and perceived strengths can motivate people to succeed, and may even buffer the negative effects of bias. Overcoming hardship can also make people more resilient and better able to face future challenges.
Seek support systems. One problem with discrimination is that people can internalize others’ negative beliefs, even when they’re false. You ily and friends can remind you of your worth and help you reframe those faulty beliefs.