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Warning: Subtle racism damages health

JAZELLE HUNT | 11/11/2013, 9:58 a.m.
“My office says my name, Rachel, on the door. I am the only one who sits in it. People constantly ...
Patrice Yursik, writer and founder of the award-winning blog, Afrobella, expresses that she does not appreciate common microaggression. Patrice Grell Yursik

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – “My office says my name, Rachel, on the door. I am the only one who sits in it. People constantly walk in, see me, and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry … I’m looking for Rachel.’ I’m half Black.”

“Upon hearing that I had secured an internship for the summer, my roommate said ‘I would have on[e] too if I was a minority. I have everything but that minority ‘it’ factor.’”

“‘Sometimes I forget that you’re black.’ Pissed off, how dare she! I love how she has no idea what the hell she said by that. I[t] just – it kills me. This kills me. These little jabs at my Blackness”

WARNING: What might seem little jabs, can have a major impact on Black longevity. There’s a term for this death-by-a-thousand-cuts phenomenon: microaggressions. It might not be in most Whites’ everyday vocabulary, but Black and Brown people in the United States know the meaning intimately. It’s in the way they’re passed up for well-deserved promotions. In the way a teacher refuses to remember or pronounce their names correctly. And it’s in being the token in your group of White friends.

The italicized quotes above are real. In fact, they were submitted to the Tumblr blog, Microaggressions (http://microaggressions.tumblr.com). Co-creator David Zhou explains, “Microaggressions are the subtle interactions that convey hostile language. Or, subtle expressions of what some would call bigotry or prejudice that express power in a social setting.”

Scrolling through Microaggressions yields more than 1,000 similar anecdotes from marginalized people across the nation and in other Western countries. According to its “about” section, the project began in 2010 and aims to [show] how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent and unsafe realities onto people.

“I think this is important because … there are still so few ways to talk about types of racism other than overt forms of discrimination,” Zhou explains. “Without the ability to talk about that, people think, well, if we just get rid of hate crimes and slurs we’ll have an equitable society. That’s not actually the case. There’s a hostile society climate that creates huge ramifications.”

An emerging body of research supports Zhou’s assertion. Over time, these racialized slights incubate and fester into alarming health ramifications, ranging from higher rates of depression, more severe cases of high blood pressure, and even mortality rate disparities.

David Williams, a professor of public health, sociology, and African and African American studies at Harvard University, has been studying these links for the past few decades. Three statistical instruments he crafted – the Major Experiences of Discrimination, Everyday Discrimination, and Heightened Vigilance scales – are making it possible to quantify discrimination for the first time, which is helping drive more rigorous research on the topic. He recounts an incident 10 years ago, when he submitted a paper on discrimination for peer review and one of his colleagues commented, “The word ‘racism’ doesn’t belong in a scientific paper because it’s just a social term that can’t be measured.”

Williams recounted, “From a scientific point of view, researchers were very worried [about discrimination measures] that people were just saying how they felt. But now we have actual discrimination predicting incidence of disease. Evidence today is overwhelmingly finding that this type of stress is greatly and adversely affecting our physiological functions.”