Historically, the field of psychology has tended to focus on the negatives of humanity, including, but not limited to, mental disorders, violence, cognitive bias, and many forms of discrimination and prejudice. In response, Martin Seligman and others started the movement of positive psychology with the idea not to overlook humans’ strengths and kindnesses and humans’ capacity to endure negative events and even to flourish in the face of them (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
In the spirit of positive psychology, and partly in response to pandemic-induced anti-Asian prejudice, a new study has identified positive racial experiences, called “racial uplifts,” among young Asian Americans (Ong et al., December 22, 2022). Racial uplifts are race-related interactions or personal experiences that can potentially improve well-being and act as a protective resource against racial prejudice. Not to minimize the real harm from racism and hate crimes, this research reminds us that racial relations in the United States can also be positive.
Ong and colleagues began by dividing 20 Asian American college freshmen into two focus groups by gender. Over a couple of hours, the participants were audio-recorded while they responded to interview questions and discussed positive aspects of their ethnic background or culture. In analyzing the responses, the researchers identified six common racial-uplift themes: ethnic bonding, overcoming obstacles, biculturalism, cultural bridging, globalism, and outgroup regard.
Among many provided examples of racial uplifts, participants discussed listening to Asian music (ethnic bonding), educating others about some aspect of Asian culture (overcoming obstacles, biculturalism, cultural bridging), listening to news from their home country (globalism), and being asked by white people to take them to a good Asian restaurant (outgroup regard).
Based on the six themes, prior research, and additional focus groups, the researchers created 19 questionnaire items representing 19 race-related experiences (i.e., racial uplifts). Then, 152 Asian American freshmen were paid to do a 14-day diary study in which, every night, they reported on whether they had any of the experiences that day and how positive those experiences were. The participants also completed several well-being items, retrospectively for the day, on the participants’ degree of positive emotion (e.g., “happy,” “enthusiastic”), negative emotion (e.g., “sad,” “angry”), and self-esteem (e.g., how “satisfied” they felt with themselves).
Among over 1,800 days of data (across the 152 participants), participants reported at least one racial uplift on about two-thirds of the days. On 17 of the 19 racial uplifts, the mean positivity rating exceeded the midpoint of the scale. The majority of reported racial uplifts (about 70 percent) comprised the themes of ethnic bonding and cultural bridging, but all six themes were represented.
Based on the well-being reports, racial uplifts were clearly associated with stronger positive emotions, weaker negative emotions, and higher self-esteem. In other words, participants who reported more racial uplifts also reported feeling more happy, less sad, and more satisfied with themselves.
Strengths and Limitations
The researchers’ undertaking was thorough and methodical, moving from focus groups and qualitative analyses to a larger sample and quantitative analyses. The senior author took steps to minimize potential biases, including groupthink, among members of the research team in collectively making qualitative analysis decisions. The researchers acknowledged that participants’ end-of-the-day reports could be affected by “memory distortion.”
An additional limitation not directly addressed by the authors was that the research design for the well-being results was essentially correlational and did not technically allow for cause-effect conclusions. We cannot know whether racial uplifts systematically “cause” higher well-being or whether there’s some other relationship such as pre-existing elevated well-being causing a more positive interpretation of a race-related experience. Nonetheless, the authors occasionally used cause-effect terms such as “benefits,” “consequences,” and “observed effects” of racial uplifts. Even the term “uplift” can give a misleading causal impression, which the authors could better clarify (Stalder, 2018a).
Racial Uplift or Microaggression?
As another limitation, there is subjectivity in perceiving and reporting racial uplifts that complicate their scientific measurement and interpretation. Studies on microaggressions carry the same challenges, though microaggression researchers rarely acknowledge them (Lilienfeld, 2017; Stalder, 2018b).
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For example, an Asian-American being asked by her white boyfriend to take him to a good Asian restaurant was the beginning of a racial uplift in the current study. But in another study, an Asian-American being asked what’s good to order at an Asian restaurant was described by the Asian-American as a microaggression and “incredibly damaging” (Endo, 2015). The two full examples had differences, but they’d need to be clearly articulated in creating a taxonomy of racial uplifts or microaggressions. Similarly, a common type of racial uplift across multiple themes in the current study was educating non-Asians about some aspect of Asian culture, but for some Asian-Americans, such educating can feel like an unfair or “nerve-racking” burden and an added component to microaggressions and racism (Chung, 2021; Yoon, 2020).
Ong and colleagues acknowledged some of this complexity when they wrote that the effects of racial uplifts may not always be beneficial. They wrote that the meaning individuals “ascribe to an uplift experience may vary as a function of” other aspects of the individuals.
Can we as a society worry less now about anti-Asian discrimination and prejudice? No, far from it. Those problems have been on the rise (Mangan, 2021). But amidst those challenges, Ong and colleagues have shown that there can also be positive race-related experiences. Whether they can offset the negative race-related experiences for the average Asian-American’s well-being was not directly addressed. Indeed, we cannot technically even know whether the identified racial uplifts systematically uplift.
But an important first step in the pursuit of a cause-effect understanding is to establish a link, which this research effectively did. There is clearly potential for certain race-related experiences to have a positive effect on well-being. As the authors concluded, future research is needed, but their investigation bolsters a relatively new area of psychological research that may help to reduce the negative effects of racism.