Home Social Construct How Racism (and Other Stressors) Might Be Affecting Your Health

How Racism (and Other Stressors) Might Be Affecting Your Health

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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, hypertensioncardiovascular diseasebreast 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.

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Lekha March 26, 2013 - 12:45 PM


You do not know how relevant this is to my life right now. I thank you so much for bringing this up and for your great commentary.

At this very moment I am dealing with a situation where a lot of very racist comments were made at a lunch meeting with some of my grad school colleagues. The people saying this stuff did not even realize they were being offensive and CERTAINLY do not see themselves as racist, but it was so depressing, shocking, and offensive to me, esp. being the only WOC (and POC at all) in the room at the time.)

The whole incident has me totally torn up and stressed because I have to work with these people every day. I cannot stop thinking about it and playing it over in my head, and everytime I see one of the people who made the comments I am at a loss as for what to do. (The only thing that’s helping is working out – so thank you for helping to get me on that path.)

Luckily, I have taken some steps to talk with some sympathetic superiors and admin officials, which has also helped a lot. I hope that at least if I cannot change these people’s minds, they will eventually see that this is not the way to be in public. If nothing else, the more I talk about it to sympathetic people, the better I feel.

Anyway, again, I just want to thank you for writing about this and expressing so many of the feelings I am already having so well. Perfect timing for me, and it’s really nice to see that I am not crazy, that this is real, that it hurts people, and that other people understand.

kiesh March 26, 2013 - 1:02 PM

It’s very interesting to me that these people don’t see themselves as racists. But then again, “___ists” rarely do (you can really insert anything here: sexist, rapist, sadist, etc). I’m amazed that we fare as well as we do with all we have against us, sometimes.

Dominique March 26, 2013 - 1:23 PM

I don’t think a lot of people put the two together but they do go hand in hand. Whether it be your race, gender, size or anything else that makes you “different”, there are people whose sole mission will be to make you at the very least uncomfortable about it.

My gym is primarily nonblack. There are mostly Asian people (mainly Indian), middle eastern, some white and few blacks. I notice the looks (not just directed at me) but I ignore them for the most part. The only time people were slightly more direct was about 2 weeks after the election. I have an Obama magnet on my car (it had been there for months). One night, I came out the gym to find a note on my car that read, “Hello, I just wanted to let you know that someone vandalized your car by putting an Obama sticker on it. The last thing that I want is for you to be driving around all day, looking like an idiot. Take care, A Good Samaritan.” As you can see, this person graduated from the same school of bullshit as your commenter.

Outside of the gym, I’ve had even more direct moments at work. I live in Michigan, I’m from Georgia. People are a little more upfront here. I’m also not one of those people who gets easily offended but I won’t ignore what’s in front of me either. Our job provides lunch screens where we can view work from vendors hoping to work with us in the future. Twice I’ve had people basically refuse to introduce themselves to me (one didn’t shake my hand the other did). This was before and after introducing themselves to everyone else who came to the event. My race was the only difference here.

Also speaking of work, I have to have a website to show my work for my profession. When I designed my current look, I went with a vector illustration of my face. I wanted people to know I was a black woman with (sometimes) short hair, glasses, and a crooked smile. Why? Because I didn’t want to be in a situation where I got called for an interview only for them to realize I was a woman and/or black. I didn’t want my time wasted by someone who wouldn’t accept me based on my gender or race. Yes, it probably makes things a little difficult BUT if someone isn’t going to call me because of either thing, that place probably wouldn’t make for a healthy work environment either.

Sekretk March 26, 2013 - 9:35 PM

This is my research area of interest. The sources provided are limited in scope and do not provide enough detail about the methodologies utilized to collect the data. Research findings suggest that although stress can lead to negative outcomes, not all Black or [insert marginalized status here] experience stress in the same way. At times, the experience of racism and/or discrimination serves as a protective factor against deleterious effects. Of course, the research continues and is split…but, it’s a snapshot of the literature out there. My hope is to shift the literature and focus towards a more strengths-based approach. Accordingly, some research suggests that because they have learned to effectively cope with racism, it may protect them from other discriminations towards other marginalized statuses (e.g., sexual orientation, etc.) In other words, a Black person may have learned to effectively cope with racism and thus, if they also identified as same-sex attracted, they may be more prepared to deal with heterosexism.

The objective is not to ignore that discrimination and racism exists and can lead to negative outcomes. The point is to look at the effective ways in which people cope that ultimately prevents them from experiencing said negative outcomes. This way, we are able to share those resources and help others to also build a certain level of resilience.

Stay strong ya’ll……

Janine March 27, 2013 - 9:54 AM

Um I just read that twitter feed and I felt physically nauseous. Heart thumping, eyes unfocused, short of breath… yeah, I guess **** like this can affect your physiology!
What tears me up is that these ******* who were born on third base and think that they hit a triple will sit there and say people who live under the poverty line have an ‘entitlement’ complex because they ‘want things handed to them’. HELLO? Do you not realize all the things that are ‘handed’ to you because you had the dumb luck to be born to people with more wealth? Did you have to earn the money it took to pay for your infant formula, your baby clothes, your tinkertoys? Your college? Those things came from somewhere, and if your parents are able to pay for that stuff and gave it to you sans charge, YOU WERE ALSO GETTING HANDOUTS. It really, really doesn’t make you superior to others if your handouts were from Mom and Dad vs the government. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that you were supported, but realize how ****** blessed and lucky you are and don’t take it as some sort merit badge that other people aren’t.
DAMN. Sorry for the rage, everybody.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 27, 2013 - 10:58 AM

Listen. One of these days, I’m going to go all rampagey on racists who visit my blog and insist their families’ hard work is what got them where they are today.

I’m just…I’m gonna wind up letting the choppa spray. I can feel it in my shundo.

KP August 13, 2013 - 12:23 AM

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I don’t even work outside of the home anymore, but I swear I see the rawest and most disgusting racism online (I work online) from cowards who are too afraid to take it beyond microaggressions in person.

I think Internet racism is worse because of its drive-by manner. There really isn’t a way to check the person or release your feelings (at least in person we can do something about it, which studies have proven helps mitigate the physical effects of racism), so you’re just sitting there angry with no real outlet to release your anger.

And it’s even worse b/c racists who have such hatred and disgust for certain people actually seek out those very people they hate and come to their spaces to unload their hatred.

For now, I would just block the IP address of the persons making those comments. Is there a way to filter out certain trigger words from comments?

I’m also exploring meditation as a means of coping. I read sometime ago that MLK meditated everyday, and I wonder now if that helped him deal with the very overt racism he experienced.

Eva August 12, 2013 - 8:30 AM

I can’t stand people who don’t realize their privilege.

Remember this: 95% of what you have in life, you did NOTHING to get. You didn’t choose where or when to be born; you didn’t choose what country you were born in; you didn’t choose your physical or mental health; you didn’t choose your family; and so on. That is what you say to a person who says where they are was through hard work, and listen to the crickets chirp!

Cherished131 July 6, 2013 - 8:50 PM

I don’t need the scientific proof behind this. I know that last year I experienced a lot of racism and held onto a lot of weight. I’m so glad to be away from that pain and depression.

Cutiepie38 July 13, 2013 - 5:28 PM

Well i always deal by thinking about God’s people and his Son if they were treated so badly then I must be one of his chosen ones lol!!

Eva August 13, 2013 - 7:58 AM

One more thing. How about fear of being a victim of crime? Black women are victims of crime more so than white women; to me that’s another type of racism/sexism.

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