A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic published a riveting essay regarding the way that racism – and even the perceived threat of racism – affects our mental and physical health. It starts with this:
A growing literature shows discrimination raises the risk of many emotional and physical problems. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality. Recently, two journals — The American Journal of Public Health and The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race — dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field’s leaders, terms “embodied inequality.”
A new study by Kathryn Freeman Anderson in Sociological Inquiry adds evidence to the hypothesis that racism harms health. To study the connection, Anderson analyzed the massive 2004 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which includes data for other 30,000 people. Conceptually, she proposes a simple pathway with two clear steps. First, because of the prevalence of racial discrimination, being a racial minority leads to greater stress. Not surprisingly, Anderson found that 18.2 percent of black participants experienced emotional stress and 9.8 percent experienced physical stress. Comparatively, only 3.5 and 1.6 percent of whites experienced emotional and physical stress, respectively.
Second, this stress leads to poorer mental and physical health. But this is not only because stress breaks the body down. It is also because stress pushes people to cope in unhealthy ways. When we feel stressed, we may want a drink and, if we want a drink, we may also want a cigarette. But discrimination is not just any form of stress. It is a type of stress that disproportionately affects minorities.
Here we see how racism works in a cycle to damage health. People at a social disadvantage are more likely to experience stress from racism. And they are less likely to have the resources to extinguish this stress, because they are at a social disadvantage.
It gets worse. Just the fear of racism alone should switch on the body’s stress-response systems. This makes sense — if we think our environment contains threats, then we will be on guard. But it raises a question that is prevalent in the study of the impact of discrimination on health. How can we test the relationship with experimental, rather than correlational, methods?
Here, however, is where it gets interesting:
Pamela J. Sawyer and colleagues ran an experiment to test the link between the anticipation of prejudice and increased psychological and cardiovascular stress. Appearing in TheAmerican Journal of Public Health‘s special issue on “The Science of Research on Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Health,” their experiment paired Latina college students with white females. The white females served as confederates (that is, accomplices to the researchers). Each participant filled out attitude forms, which included questions on racial stereotypes. Some confederates answered the questions as a racist might, others did not.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The researchers had each Latina student prepare a three-minute speech on “what I am like as a work partner” for their white partner. But before each student gave her speech, she read her partner’s responses — and, among other things, knew if the person evaluating her speech held racist beliefs. To monitor stress during the speech, the researchers hooked the speakers up to blood pressure cuffs and sensors to measure other cardiovascular data, including an electrocardiogram and impedance cardiography.
When Latina participants thought they were interacting with a racist white partner, they had higher blood pressure, a faster heart rate, and shorter pre-ejection periods. What this shows is an increased sympathetic response, or what is often called the “fight or flight response.” Merely the anticipation of racism, and not necessarily the act, is enough to trigger a stress response. And this study only involved a three-minute speech.
After having read these last three paragraphs, I want to go back to something said earlier:
this is not only because stress breaks the body down. It is also because stress pushes people to cope in unhealthy ways. When we feel stressed, we may want a drink and, if we want a drink, we may also want a cigarette. But discrimination is not just any form of stress. It is a type of stress that disproportionately affects minorities.
We may want a drink… or we may want a box of donuts or an entire bag of cookies.
As trite as that sounds, I’m absolutely serious. Though the article goes on to discuss how this relates in regards to New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policy, I’m actually more interested in taking this – the discrimination -> stress -> poor health correlation – in the direction of analyzing other stressful situations.
What if, in a society hell bent on penalizing Black people for being Black, fat people for being fat, and female people for being women, you are in a high-pressure environment where you are assessed for advancement. Want that promotion? Afraid that being fat, Black, or a woman (or, hell, all three) is going to affect your ability to get that higher paycheck? Are you going to have the same physiological responses as the aforementioned Latinas? Is it going to affect your performance? Is it going to affect your health? Are workplace microaggressions sending you home stressed out, in need of a drink (or three), a smoke (or two) or a pint of your favorite cookies and cream ice cream?
What is the point of this? Is this meant to elicit pity for victims of discrimination? No. This is about more than pity. (Especially when it comes to Stop-and-Frisk, but I’m not touching on that, here.) There’s three sides to this situation – the person committing the microaggression, the person witnessing the microaggressions, and the person being discriminating against.
I think we can all admit the most stressful position to play in this situation… is the role of the person being discriminated against. The question I’m about to ask isn’t about pity, but about legitimate concern: if you are the person being discriminated against, it’s rough enough to have to continue to function in environments that treat you poorly because of some perceived inherent flaw… but how do you handle the physical toll of the stress? The repeated trigger of your fight or flight?
Sure, you can just walk around bodying people (that’s Erika-speak for “knock you clean on your ass”) and that might make you feel better, but those of us in the civilized world… how do we handle this? It’s bad enough that you have to deal with discrimination, but knowing that you have to deal with discrimination and the physiological effects that it has had on your body…where do you begin? What do you do?
Some of us are in situations where we have to continue to deal with bigotry, ignorance and idiocy permanently. Hell, I keep talking about Corporate America, but not even I am immune to racism and flat out stupid. Not even 24 hours ago, I got one of the most comfortably racist comments I’ve ever received, and it was punctuated with “I’m not racist; I’m a good person who cares about the planet and the people on it.” Because, duhhh there’s no more strange fruit swinging from the poplar trees, guise. Racism doesn’t exist. The source of your stress is mythological; it’s not real, you made it up, and your suffering and struggle is you wanting to be a perpetual victim. Racism doesn’t exist; you just have a bunch of people walking around thinking like this, who are the deciding factor in whether or not you advance in any way – car loans, hell home loans, employment, college admissions – whose biases will determine whether or not you can escape the violence and poverty they insist are inherent in your existence as a person of color. Also, superior mythical Asians. Because, duh. Yellow skin is yellow. And magical.
Sorry. Still mad about this morning. And incoherent, apparently.
In a world where people like this exist and function freely with their biases, yet still have the audacity to claim they aren’t racist and are “open minded,” we are expected to still thrive. But how? What kind of coping mechanism is that powerful?
I have no answers. Only headaches.