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Easing the Burden? Social Support for Discrimination Talk in Same- and Cross-Race Friendships

  • Author(s): Marshburn, Christopher Kyle;
  • Advisor(s): Campos, Belinda;
  • et al.

Racial discrimination is a pervasive life stressor faced by many people of color (Brondolo, ver Halen, Pencille, Beatty & Contrada, 2009) that has been associated with negative psychological and physical health outcomes for Black Americans (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009). Psychological research theorizes social support to be a potent buffer against the negative effects of stress on health (Cohen, 2004; Taylor, 2011). For Black Americans, however, social support’s role in buffering health against the negative effects of racism is less clear. These equivocal findings may be because researchers do not know much about the complex dynamics of effective social support in the context of racism.

Two studies examined the role of same- and cross-race friends in social support exchanges, and whether that social support benefitted Black Americans’ emotional wellbeing. Study 1 examined which friends 31 Black Americans (Mage=19.7, SD=1.70; 74% women) sought for social support in response to racism, and whether they found it helpful. Participants completed measures of perceived discrimination, perceived social support, and emotional closeness with their same- and cross-race friends, and participated in semi-structured focus group interviews discussing racism and social support. Findings revealed that participants reported more emotional closeness to Black friends and non-Black friends of color relative to White friends. Furthermore, 65% of participants reported preferring social support from Black friends to non-Black friends because of their increased ability to understand racism. Study 2 examined how support provision and responsiveness (i.e., feeling understood) provided in same-race (ndyad=16) and cross-race (ndyad=30) dyadic friendship interactions impacted Black participants emotional wellbeing. Actor-partner interdependence models found that receiving social support increased Black participants’ emotional closeness to their same- and cross-race friends and decreased participants’ feelings of negative emotions. Responsiveness in same-race interactions, however, increased feelings of negative emotions. This finding may suggest that responsiveness and social support serve different functions in contexts where both friends are negatively impacted by a chronic stressor like racism, and talking about it becomes emotionally draining because there is little recourse to eliminate the stressor. Altogether, the current studies suggest that social support in response to racism does benefit Black Americans’ emotional wellbeing.

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