Abstract: #Icantbreathe: Racial Discrimination, Activism, and Black Youth's Mental Health (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

#Icantbreathe: Racial Discrimination, Activism, and Black Youth's Mental Health

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 7, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Nkemka Anyiwo, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

By virtue of their upbringing in a nation rooted in racial stratification and oppression, Black youth frequently encounter racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is the way that racism manifests in an interpersonal context through direct experiences (e.g., being followed in a store or harassed by police officers) as well as through vicarious experiences (e.g., hearing about or witnessing racism experienced by friends, family, or strangers) (Harrell, 2000). Racial discrimination has deleterious implications for the mental health and wellbeing of Black youth (Priest et al., 2013). Scholars speculate that Black youth’s activism to address racism can be a mechanism for them to cope with and radically heal from racism by actively addressing issues that impact them and their community (Ginwright, 2010; Hope & Spencer, 2017). This paper will examine whether Black youth’s racial justice traditional and online activism is protective against the negative impact of racial discrimination on their mental health (anxiety and depressive symptoms).


Participants include 500 adolescents ages 13-17 (M = 14.97, SD = 1.46) all of whom self-identify as Black. Adolescents were recruited in 2018 using an online survey panel platform from across the United States with a majority being in the South (58.6%), followed by the Midwest (17.3 %), Northeast (16.0%), and West (8.1%).  Participants responded to a 30 minutes survey assessing their experiences of direct and vicarious racial discrimination, engagement in traditional and online race related activism, and their anxiety and depressive symptoms.  Two multiple regression analyses were conducted to address the major research question: one with anxiety symptoms regressed on racial discrimination and sociopolitical action and the other with depressive symptoms regressed on racial discrimination and sociopolitical action.



Regression analyses revealed that consistent with previous research, youth’s direct experiences of racial discrimination were positively associated with their depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms. However, vicarious racial discrimination was only positively associated with depressive symptoms. Youth’s traditional activism was not associated with mental health outcomes. However,  youth who engaged in more online activism to combat racism reported higher symptoms of anxiety and depression. Inconsistent with previous theory, we did not find evidence of activism as a protective factor for Black youth. The interactions between traditional activism and racial discrimination were not significant.  Further, we found significant interaction effect between vicarious racial discrimination and online action such that vicarious racial discrimination was associated with more anxiety and depressive symptoms but only for youth who engaged in more online sociopolitical action.


These findings suggest that sociopolitical action, particularly action online, may be a source of stress for Black youth that can exacerbate the impact of vicarious racial discrimination on mental health outcomes. Youth’s pursuits of equity and social justice may operate as yet another stressor that Black youth are tasked with navigating as they grow and transition into adulthood. Thus, a major task for scholars, social work practitioners, and parents alike are to identify mechanisms to support the wellbeing of youth as they engage in sociopolitical action to make change in their communities.