The magazine for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Iowa State University
Meifen Wei with students (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)
Meifen Wei with students (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

Connection across cultures reduces effects of discrimination

An unfortunately large percentage of minorities in the United States experience discrimination based on their race. New research at Iowa State University is addressing ways to ease negative symptoms, such as stress and anxiety, caused by discrimination.

Meifen Wei, professor of psychology, studies the impact of discrimination in order to improve understanding of how people from different ethnic backgrounds can learn to think, feel, and see things from others’ perspectives, otherwise known as cultural empathy.

"I want to promote cultural empathy because I think it is a powerful way to help facilitate positive interactions between majority and minority groups," Wei said. “When members of the majority possess cultural empathy, they can serve as allies for minority group members, helping to bridge understanding across cultures.”

According to the Office of the Registrar, 8,748 Iowa State students this fall — nearly 24% of enrolled students — are minorities, including more than 4,617 international students. Many of Wei’s studies focus on Iowa State students and their experiences with discrimination. About 83% of students in the minority groups she studied reported experiencing discrimination in the form of being treated differently, ignored, looked down on, or rejected because of their race. Those experiencing discrimination were likely to suffer from symptoms of depression or anxiety.

"I'm always very interested in how the scientific evidence matches and validates people's personal experiences," Wei said.

She is interested in how minorities cope with stress caused by discrimination and what protective factors reduce the negative impacts of discrimination. She found that having high self-esteem, feeling connected with others in the ethnic community and in mainstream culture, and having social or family support served as resources to reduce the negative symptoms caused by discrimination. Having high bicultural competency, including having connections in both cultures and knowledge of the cultural beliefs and values of both groups, also helps reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety from experiencing discrimination.

In addition, Wei has found that Asian cultural values can create unique challenges, as well as benefits, for Asian Americans and Asian international students coping with discrimination.

"In Asian culture, emotional self-control is viewed as a sign of maturity, and interpersonal harmony is valued," Wei said. "So Asians may not necessarily be very expressive or assertive to tell you, 'I don't deserve to be treated that way.' They might be hesitant to speak up while suffering internally. Even if they express their feelings, they might worry about causing interpersonal conflict as a result."

Wei also highlights that another Asian cultural value is to view crisis or adversity as an opportunity. In her recent work with Stacy Ko, graduate student in psychology, and other colleagues, they found that Asian American students can transform discrimination experiences into cultural empathy to understand how people from different ethnic backgrounds think and feel, and then enhance their bicultural competence and make positive sense of this adversity.

Her work has been praised by colleagues and collaborators at Iowa State and around the world.

“Dr. Wei’s work on how ethnic minorities – particularly international Asians and Asian Americans – cope with discrimination is timely, rigorous and internationally recognized," said Loreto Prieto, a professor of psychology, and colleague of Wei’s at ISU. “Her service contributions have been numerous and range across levels from local to international, and most have centered on creating an inclusive climate for cultural diversity.”

Meifen Wei received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Mid Career Achievement in Research Award this fall for her reputation for outstanding contributions in research, including her work with how individuals cope with developmental or situational stress in their lives and how stress affects their mental health status. Wei joined the ISU faculty in 2002.