Feeling Helpless to Change (or “It’s the little things that count.”)

Hotep Family,

Frequent and subtle acts of racial violence that individual people of African descent (Black) experience on a daily basis can have profound effects. I was reading a study on the consequences of perceived racial discrimination by Broman, Mavaddat, and Hsu (2000). The study was important for two reasons: 1) it focused on what Black people perceived; and 2) its goal was to measure the experience of helplessness that accumulates over time into a set pattern of learned behavior, “learned helplessness”. It is important to understand this occurrence because we, Africans, experience this phenomenon on a daily basis, it is unsupported by the wider society and often goes unspoken within our own community with no psychological support or healing.


The authors of the study hypothesized that individual acts of racial violence, defined as “isolate discrimination”, reduces a person’s confidence in his or her ability to gain mastery over events in their lives and increases psychological distress. There are few studies that examine what happens when someone perceives that they are targets of racial violence. Over the last few decades, there have been numerous studies that use hard science and psychometric instruments to show the relationship between racism and physiological factors (such as the instances of high blood pressure among people of African descent in low socioeconomic environments), as a way to provide “legitimate” evidence to the non-melaninated (or “White”) society that institutional racial violence does, indeed, harm the quality of our lives. But perception is a far more elusive concept to debate because to value a person’s perception, that person’s humanity must be valued. Since, that has never been the case for African people ever since the human designation of “White” was invented in order to create chattel slavery and a middle class of workers to maintain the elite rulers control, social science has inadvertently supported faulty research by failing to address the inhumanity of systemic racial violence.


The theory of learned helplessness states that humans and animals who learn that outcomes are uncontrollable suffer motivational, cognitive, and emotional deficits. After repeatedly lacking control over racial violence, people give up trying to defend themselves because they believe that nothing they do will have any effect (this is loss of motivation). When people stop trying to prevent acts of racial of violence, they no longer try to learn about the origins, causes, and outcomes of the behavior because they have accepted it as “just the way things are” (this is loss of cognition, or thinking about it). This acceptance leads to the third, emotional deficit or loss; which is depression. Africans express depression in very different ways from the typical type of sadness evident in Western psychological models. African people sometimes express their depression externally, in the form of anger, or they express their depression internally, in the form of self-destructive behaviors (like drug use).


The authors of the study explained that African (Black) people viewing themselves as victims of uncontrollable racial violence (be it racial bias, microaggressions, discrimination, or assault) can unconsciously engage in an inferiorization process – adopting a sense of inferiority that leads to a sapping of confidence and ability, inhibiting political organization and resulting in a host of personal and collective social problems. Because subtle forms of racial violence usually are not addressed by the wider society, over time African people can develop a sense of helplessness and inferiorization, it is critical that we reclaim our humanity by valuing our own perceptions of all forms of racial violence against us so that we can heal from these injuries.


The study involved conducting phone interviews with 495 African American adults (18 years of age or older) living in Detroit. The subjects were asked if they believed they had been targets of racial violence by:

  • experiencing discrimination
  • been prevented from doing something
  • been hassled, or
  • made to feel inferior because of their color.

They were asked to rate the degree to which they experienced these acts of violence in:

  • getting a job,
  • being at work,
  • shopping in a store, and
  • in interactions with the police.

The respondents’ reports of these experiences were then compared to their responses as to what degree in their lives they felt they experienced signs of helplessness. They were asked how these acts of racial violence impacted their ability to:

(a) solve their problems,

(b) be pushed around in life,

(c) be in control of their lives,

(d) to accomplish things,

(e) be in control of their future,

(f) their sense of helpless in dealing with life’s problems, and

(g) doing things in life.


Finally, the subjects’ emotional distress was measured by asking them to respond to how often they felt

  • depressed,
  • jumpy,
  • restless,
  • like crying,
  • like they couldn’t get motivated to do anything, and
  • had a poor appetite.


The results of the study supported the authors theory that when Black people perceive that they have been victims of racial violence, they feel less capable of directing their own lives and experience more psychological distress. This is consistent with what Robert T. Carter identifies as part of the experience of Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS). RBTS is emotional distress due to the continuous, pervasive, and multi-generational systematic oppression of people of color that results in devastating impairment to healthy emotional and psychological functioning. RBTS causes many Black people to develop distorted perceptions of themselves and their abilities to engage effectively in the world (or learned helplessness) which, in turn, leads to Africans internalizing racism (believing about themselves all of the racists ideas that have been promoted in the media, education, religious, and political systems). This racist self-identification produces in us the inability to engage in self-determination.


One variable that I believe also contributes to individual’s distress, which was not directly addressed in the study is that in isolated cases of racial violence, the target experiences an escalated sense of vulnerability. Imagine being the only female among a military unit of males, or only being able to speak English in a Hispanic community. When we experience “isolate discrimination” our distress can be more severe because we feel more exposed to sudden and continued injury. These injuries may not appear obvious to the naked eye (like when a person has broken arm), or can be measured with a scientific instrument (like a blood pressure cuff), but the battering is just as damaging and needs just as much care, support, and healing for us all to survive and thrive.


It is important that African people take responsibility for our mental health in order to inoculate, prevent, and recover from the daily and often unconscious racially violent assaults on our psyche. We have to admit that what we think or feel is happening is real and it’s hurting us. We need to become vigilant about not allowing our thought processes to slowly sink into complacency, acceptance, denial, and hopelessness. And we need to seek emotional, spiritual, and psychological support from friends, family, and professionals who won’t try to make you feel like something’s wrong with you because you feel the way you do. You might feel depressed, angry, and insecure, but it’s because you are a victim of an injury. If a woman has nightmares and difficulty with intimacy because she was raped, we don’t call her crazy; we call her hurt and we give her the care and support she needs. After generations of abuse, don’t you deserve at least the same respect and compassion as any other victim?




Broman, C.L., Mavaddat, R., Hsu,S. (2000). The Experience and Consequences of Perceived Racial Discrimination: A Study of African Americans. Journal of Black Psychology, 26:2, 165-180.


Additional Reading:

Handbook of Racial-Cultural Psychology and Counseling, Theory and Research


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