“Things Like That Happen When You Come to a New Country”: Bosnian Refugee Experiences With Discrimination

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The present study examined how Bosnian refugees make sense of their experiences with everyday discrimination in the United States. Sixty Bosnian refugees in three generations—adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged adults—were asked to provide three narrative accounts about a time when (a) they were singled out negatively based on their ethnicity (“victim”), (b) they were singled out positively based on their ethnicity (“positive”), and (c) they singled out others negatively based on others’ ethnicity (“perpetrator”). Whereas the majority of participants appraised discrimination actions as hurtful and wrong, they often mitigated their judgments by minimizing their negative emotions in the victim accounts, and normalizing discrimination both in the victim and perpetrator accounts. In both roles, participants resisted incorporating these experiences into their stable sense of identity, instead rooting discrimination in perpetrators’ ignorance. Positive discrimination events evoked refugees pride and positive self-concepts, but also a sense of ambivalence, especially among young adults. Middle-aged adults were particularly resistant to accept their role as perpetrators, and were less forgiving of discrimination than their younger counterparts. The findings are discussed in terms specific sociohistorical factors and acculturation challenges posed by discrimination for Bosnian refugees of different generations as well as potential benefits and costs for their evolving identities and wellbeing in the new cultural context.

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