Vicarious racism captures the concept that racism influences individuals even if they are not the target of racism. The term and concept are a reminder of the power of racism, such that its reach is beyond those of the intended or likely victim. Racism’s clutches include the spaces around and proximal to the initial recipient. Merely learning of or witnessing racism is associated with suboptimal health. Vicarious racism, specifically, influences both emotional and mental health negatively.

Vicarious Trauma and Vicarious Racism

Vicarious racism extends from the idea of vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is generally discussed in relation to mental health professionals’ experiences. Vicarious trauma is experienced when a person, generally a mental health professional (eg, psychologist, counselor, social worker) experiences trauma secondarily as a result of their work with a client sharing their own individual history of trauma. Research about vicarious trauma demonstrates that counselors who experience vicarious trauma may experience physical, emotional, behavioral and interpersonal problems. Specifically, those experiencing vicarious trauma may report burnout and may question the way they perceive themselves and the world around them. 1

The Effects of Vicarious Racism

Similarly, racial trauma and racism can be experienced vicariously – even when not termed vicarious racism – with clear influences of health. In fact, post 9/11, Islamophobia was rising within the United States and this threat of racism and discrimination influenced the health of the next generation. Bakhtiari et al found that after September 11th, the women of Middle Eastern and Northern African descent had infants with lower birth weights.2 Additionally, Arab Americans were more likely to have psychological distress, lower happiness levels, and overall worse health.3 Further evidence of structural vicarious racism is documented in a 2018 Lancet article about police killings.4 This study utilized nationally representative data to estimate the influence of police killings of unarmed Black Americans on the mental health of non-involved Black Americans. The authors found that individuals with exposure to police killings within the same state were more likely to have poor mental health days. Interestingly, the most notable effects occurred about 1 to 2 months after exposure to these killings.4 Vicarious racism influences children and adolescents alike.

In addition to being associated with low infant birth weight, infants whose caregivers have been exposed to discrimination are more likely to have preterm births. Older children are more likely to have internalizing behavioral manifestations and depressive symptoms if their caregivers report discrimination.5 However, these outcomes may be influenced by parental depression, parenting practices, and parental acculturation. While there has been a critical focus on caregiver’s discrimination, there has been less attention paid to vicarious racism via online and social media sources.  These areas are important to highlight because the influence of structural or individual vicarious racism affects those beyond traditional geographic boundaries.

(See also, how to deliver trauma-informed care.)

Social Media as an Avenue of Vicarious Racism

With the advent of technology, specifically smartphones and social media, the experiences of racially minoritized or other marginalized groups become democratized and more difficult to deny. These experiences are, in part, due to the video and photographic evidence of atrocities deliberately targeted to those not in majority groups. Smartphones have been integral in capturing the underbelly of American society – that is, the second-class citizenship of Black Americans. Further, these images, videos, accounts, and news stories have the potential to be rapidly disseminated through social media and similar platforms. The propagation of these stories enables the masses to learn of and witness these events as well as to organize and mobilize beyond geographic boundaries. And while such social media shares have been authoritative and effective tools of present-day social movements, they serve as a relevant avenue of vicarious racism.

Research demonstrates adolescents spend 4 hours or more online or on social media.6 As such, adolescents may be most affected by vicarious racism through online and social media sources. This constant state of connectivity increases the likelihood that adolescents are exposed to racist content online.

Racism in the Media and How it Affects Adolescents

Adolescents who report exposure to vicarious racism online report feeling overwhelmed, helplessness, negative mood, and feelings of desensitization.7 A recent study led by Tynes et al examined the association between mental health and traumatic racial events online in over 300 adolescents. The researchers found that adolescents who had more traumatic experiences online were more likely to have higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms, with girls reporting more symptoms.8 Overall, vicarious racism experienced online does not have clear association with health; however, this literature is still nascent. Though, there are clear associations with negative mood and health broadly, these associations must be examined in the context of vicarious racism.

However, adolescents may use activism to combat feelings of negative emotional and depressive symptoms. Activism was a sustained and powerful response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black and brown victims killed by police. The widespread national protests included diverse participants that asserted, “Black Lives Matter,” perhaps after viewing, witnessing, or hearing about these or other killings by police.

Black Lives Matter: Activism as an Outlet

In essence, activism may be an important and productive response to experiencing vicarious racism. Activism after vicarious racism may give adolescents and adults alike the outlet to create the political will and policy change to address the harms caused by direct and vicarious structural racism. Activism is unique in that, it may help create change for the individual participating in the activism but also allow society to reap those same benefits so that Black Lives Matter will not be a tagline but a societal principle.

More from this collection on disability justice, racial targeting in psychiatry, and gender identity in the BIPOC community; plus, a message from our guest editors.

Last Updated: Sep 9, 2021