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This article rests on two things being true – that men and women experience stress in different ways, and that cross-race interactions can be stress-provoking. The thesis behind this paper is that men and women, therefore, experience stress differentially in cross-race interactions. Is one gender prone to being more stressed in these interactions? Is one gender able to navigate interracial difference better than another? These are interesting and important questions to consider, but first, we must establish a few foundational truths.

Men and women experience stress differently

One of the most common findings within stress research is that women experience higher rates of anxiety compared to men during their lifetimes. Gender differences in trajectories of emotional problems, such as anxiety and aggression, emerge during early adolescence, according to Coping with Perceived Peer Stress: Gender-Specific and Common Pathways to Symptoms of Psychopathology (2010). Girls reported significantly higher levels of anxiety, whereas boys reported significantly higher levels of overt aggression. Responses to stress seem to develop divergently between boys and girls starting in adolescence, such that girls and women tend to internalize stress whereas boys and men tend to externalize stress.

Aside from responding to and experiencing stress in different ways, men and women also become stressed due to different factors. Gender Differences in Stress Generation: an Examination of Interpersonal Predictors examined 14-day mood and stressful life event diaries among 206 college students (67 male, 139 female), finding that 42% of women reported dependent interpersonal stress compared to 18% of men. This suggests that women may face more stressors related to relationships and interpersonal interactions, while men may face more stressors due to non-relational concerns such as finances or grades.

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Cross-race interactions are stressful

Prior to considering how gender affects cross-race interactions, it is crucial to understand why stress is prominent in cross-race interactions. In her summary of White individuals and Black individuals in interracial interaction research, Laura Babbitt (2011) explains that generally “Whites are often concerned about appearing prejudiced to Blacks, and Blacks are concerned about prejudice from Whites.” In our current political climate, racism, discrimination and marginalization are concerns of all people, Black and White alike. It is easy to imagine that people of all races feel obligated to act in certain ways, or code switch around people of other races, which adds a sense of uneasiness and stress. People seem to be especially afraid of misspeaking and therefore eliciting a negative reaction when talking with people of another race.

Another cause of stress in cross-race interactions may be perceived cultural barriers, differences in socioeconomic status, and differences in privilege. People may simply be less able to relate to one another’s experiences and actions. These issues were prominent in Jennifer Bratter and Karl Eschblach’s 2006 study on interracial versus intraracial marriage. In a pool of married and cohabiting couples in the United States, interracial marriage was associated with severe distress for Native American men, White women, and Hispanic men and women married to non-White spouses when compared to intraracial marriage. This is important to note as this provides insight into why cross-race interactions may be stress-provoking. It doesn’t appear that stress is always an innate response to racial differences, but can rather be explained by differences in experience and understanding.

Gender and stress expression in cross-race interactions 

Now that we understand how and why men and women experience differently and how and why cross-race interactions are stressful, we can begin to dive into how and why men and women experience stress differently in cross-race interactions. 

In the only research study to date of its kind, Scott Vrana and David Rollock explicitly measured gender differences in physiological stress responses in cross-race interactions. Specifically, they examined physiological response to an encounter with and touch by an unfamiliar person of either the same race or a different race (but same sex). 

The study involved 55 African American (23 male, 30 female) and 51 European American (23 male, 28 female) undergraduates. White and Black women showed more positive facial expression (measured by electromyographic (EMG) muscle activity in the zygomaticus (smile) region) than men, and White and Black male participants showed more heart rate acceleration when encountering a Black male interactor. These findings suggest that women may be more comfortable than men in cross-race interactions and simply interactions overall. 

However, it is difficult to determine whether the positive facial expressions were due to comfort or due to affect and politeness, as women are known to smile more than men in general (as evidenced in Judith Hall’s 1984 research study). Nevertheless, White and Black men tended to have higher heart rate acceleration when encountering a Black male interactor, suggesting discomfort or nervousness associated with meeting a Black man. This may be due to discomfort in cross-race interactions for White men and internalized racism in Black men. However, this study was conducted in 1998 and may be marked by its time, further highlighting the need for new and continuing study. 

Although I don’t have the resources to conduct a full-fledged research experiment to get to the bottom of this question, I do have a few thoughts…

I do believe that men likely experience more stress in cross-race interactions than women. My reasoning is two-fold. First, interracial stress in women may be mitigated in part due to a shared marginalized, stereotyped, and low-status identity group – that of being a woman. 

As such, women may feel more solidarity with each other than men do, and may focus more on their gender commonality than their racial difference. Perceived discrimination toward one’s own racial group was positively associated with expressed closeness with another racial minority group, according to Coalition or Derogation? How Reminders of Discrimination Influence Intraminority Intergroup Relations. When applied to gender minorities, these findings may suggest that women feel increased closeness with each other (regardless of race) due to shared experiences of gender discrimination.

Additionally, current media and feminist campaigns such as Together Women Can and Women for Women have recently stressed the need for women to lift other women up, which may increase women’s willingness to interact with other women from a variety of backgrounds. 

Second, police brutality in which White male cops harm Black male individuals is increasingly prevalent, decreasing amity between White and Black men as discussed in “Why I Can’t Stand Out in Front of My House?”: Street‐Identified Black Youth and Young Adult’s Negative Encounters With Police. Although these racial tensions also exist among women and there has undoubtedly been White female violence against Black men and White male violence against White women, White male violence against Black men is most common in the media. 

Take for example the cases of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.  These six men are often grouped together to represent the unlawful and unfair treatment of Black men at the hands of White, male, police. On the other hand, Breonna Taylor often stands alone, indicating that while the injustices done to Black women are just as horrific, they don’t seem to occur, or are at least not broadcasted, as often. With all of the current racial tension in the U.S., it is my assumption that men’s willingness to interact with other men from a variety of backgrounds may decrease, and will be lower than that of women.

Why you should care

So why is this all important? This is important because the prevalence of racially diverse individuals in the U.S. has drastically increased and is continuing to increase. Not only is the country diversifying, but cross-race interactions are increasing as well.

One example of this is that the prevalence of interracial and cross-cultural marriages and relationships are increasingly common. In fact, in just over a year, I will be marrying my high-school sweetheart, a Latino man. I’ve had the privilege over the past 6.5 years to learn new things about his family’s culture, share my own traditions, and begin to incorporate differing expectations into our wedding planning. Although this is many years down the line, we also recognize that when we have children, it’s likely that they will look more like one of us than the other. We were both raised and now live in highly diverse communities in which seeing a White woman with a Latino man didn’t raise too many eyebrows. But I do wonder if I’ll start to get questioning looks when I take my Latinx-passing children to the grocery store, or if people will question my partner when he takes our White-passing children to their soccer games. It’d be naive of me to say that our cross-cultural, cross-ethnic marriage will pose no challenges. 

Therefore, it is especially important to understand race, and racial interactions in order to promote better psychological outcomes among historically marginalized and underrepresented groups and to promote more positive interactions among people of different backgrounds. However, studying race alone is not enough, as gender often plays a large role in the opinions and views of individuals and can either mitigate or exacerbate racialized distress.

Race and gender come together to form an intersectional identity. Individuals are not only seen as Black or White, or male or female, but are seen as an amalgamation of their gender and race. Stereotypes influence each of these identities so that Black men, White men, Black women and White women are all described by often baseless assumptions, as suggested by Mary McRae’s 2003 keynote address at Working Mother’s Best Companies for Women of Color National Conference. 

Experiences of stress and discrimination are dependent on an intersectional identity in which race and gender cannot be separated. It is vital that we begin to better understand why and how different people find cross-race interactions stressful so that we can begin to mitigate these issues and work towards better and increased understanding of others.

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