Black Young Adults: Remember This When Facing Discrimination

Kelly Wairimu Davis, MS

November 18, 2021

Joel Bervell recalls leaving his hometown of Seattle for the east coast after being accepted into Yale University.

Still getting accustomed to the big move, Bervell, who had breezed through high school with straight As, went to see his chemistry professor for advice after getting a low grade on a test.

"He took one look at me and said, 'Oh, if you're on the football team, you don't need to worry about it. So many people from the football team come into the class and end up dropping out, so if you need to drop this class, you can,'" Bervell says.

Bervell, who is Black, was not on the football team, nor did he receive a sports scholarship of any kind.

"For that professor to make an assumption of me, which to me felt like it was based on my race, made me less likely to want to go into a science field, where I felt like I was being judged before I even had a chance to prove myself," Bervell says.

Discrimination can lead to particularly harmful outcomes for young adults entering college or starting off their careers, according to a new UCLA study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers studied health data on 1,834 Americans ages 18 to 28 over a 10-year span. Findings show that the more instances of discrimination they experienced -- including ageism, sexism, and racism -- the more likely they were to face mental and behavioral struggles, like mental illness, drug use, severe psychological distress, and poor overall health.

Bervell, now 26, says he feels lucky that growing up, he was taught healthy ways to process his feelings and emotions.

"Instead of taking that and internalizing it, I said, 'how can I use this to prove him wrong?'" he says. "Does that mean I need to work harder or does that mean I need to find a different mentor? Surround myself with different people?"

Bervell is currently a third-year medical student at Washington State University.

When he's not at the hospital seeing patients, you can find him educating his nearly 340,000 TikTok followers on topics like racial bias in medicine.

Acknowledge the Impact

Most Black people don't tie psychological distress to acts of racism, according to Rheeda Walker, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Houston and author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health.

Many Black people even normalize it.

"Individuals deal with it [racism] as just another thing, like paying bills, going to work, and studying for class and not as the overwhelming psychological burden that it is," says Walker.

And despite what some may say, racial discrimination is not merely "a thing of the past," Walker says.

"Instead, discrimination has shifted form from more overt forms of discrimination to less obvious microaggression," she says.

It's also critical that young adults are taught how to deal with racism to avoid the risk of "internalizing that they deserve to be mistreated, and/or that they have to work twice as hard to overcome racism," says Walker.

"Both scenarios can escalate hopelessness and worry, psychological features of depression and anxiety, respectively," Walker says.

Embrace Your Emotions

Known around the office as "a big teddy bear," Frederick Herman, a mortgage loan originator based in Charlotte, was coaching a newer employee on how to make sales calls, a common practice in his line of work.

He says a day or 2 days later, his manager let him know that he had made an employee "very uncomfortable" by intimidating them while they were on the phone. Herman, 29, was told to watch his "aggressive" behavior.

"I'm a bigger Black man. I'm like 6'2, 300 lbs., somewhat muscular. So, if me talking or trying to coach her came off as intimidating, then there's nothing that I could do or say differently than I was already doing to make her not feel intimidated," Herman says.

"If a big teddy bear is now intimidating to you, that just tells me everything I need to know."

This wasn't the first time Herman had been reprimanded for being "too aggressive" or "showing off" when trying to help colleagues at work.

"I've had other experiences at work where I may not share my ideas, or I may get super anxious," says Herman, a Black man of Haitian descent.

It's important to allow yourself to feel your emotions after facing acts of discrimination, says Ebony Butler, PhD, a licensed psychologist and creator of My Therapy Cards, a card deck tailored for men, women, and teens of color, with self-care and reflection prompts.

This is a practice called "self-validation" and can reduce the tendency to blame oneself for the mistreatment, says Butler.

Herman, 29, says that he recently signed up for therapy to work through his struggles with anxiety.

Relaxation techniques, like grounding and mindfulness, can also be helpful, says Butler.

"Some example ways to practice grounding are immersing oneself in nature, walking bare feet on the ground, lying on the floor, practicing slow, deep breathing, or engaging the senses," she says.

"When we are grounded and present, we can better manage our responses and plan our action steps."

Utilize Unique

If you find yourself in a racially-charged school or workplace setting, don't be intimidated, says Wendy Osefo, PhD, education professor at Johns Hopkins University, political commentator, and television personality.

Osefo made history in 2016 as the first Black woman to earn a PhD in public affairs/community development from Rutgers University.

"Your attitude should be that no matter how different you might be, you belong, and you earned the right to occupy this space. You're not less qualified than others who surround you," she says.

Ofeso is also CEO of The 1954 Equity Project, an organization that gives minority students tools to succeed in higher education -- like mentorships, peer support groups, and other resources and services -- all while remaining their authentic selves.

No matter how uncomfortable it might be, staying true to who you are vs. conforming to the masses pays off, says Osefo.

"Being different is unique and allows you to bring a new and fresh perspective into an environment," she says.

"Leaning into this uniqueness builds a level of confidence that will aid in your ability to be successful."


Ebony Butler, PhD, licensed psychologist; creator, My Therapy Cards®.

Rheeda Walker, PhD, psychology professor, University of Houston; author, "The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health."

Wendy Osefo, PhD, education professor, Johns Hopkins University; CEO, The 1954 Equity Project, LLC; political commentator; television personality.

Joel Bervell, third-year medical student, Washington State University.

Frederick Herman, mortgage loan originator based, Charlotte, NC.

EurekAlert: "Discrimination increases risk for mental health issues in young adults."

The 1954 Equity Project.

Bravo: "Wendy Osefo."

TikTok: @joelbervell.

My Therapy Cards.

'Pervasive' Health Inequities Exist Across the U.S.: Report


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