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Warning: Subtle racism damages health

JAZELLE HUNT | 11/11/2013, 9:58 a.m.
Patrice Yursik, writer and founder of the award-winning blog, Afrobella, expresses that she does not appreciate common microaggression. Patrice Grell Yursik

Williams’ and other studies are finding that those who report higher levels of discrimination also report high levels of inflammation in the blood and visceral fat inside organs – both of which increase risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

One study in the February 2013 issue of Sociological Inquiry finds that physical or emotional stress stemming from discrimination predicts an increase in poor mental and physical health days. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2007 found that in African American women, breast cancer risk increased 20 percent for those who reported discrimination at work. Another from 2006 asserted that chronic discrimination might increase risk of early artery plaque build-up in African American women.

Camara Jules P. Harrell, a psychology professor at Howard University, has studied stress, psychophysiology and how discrimination intersects the two.

“Just being in this environment has physiological reactions, often outside of awareness,” he says. “I take the extreme position, but I emphatically believe in how so much of [microaggressions] – well over 60 percent – is processed outside awareness.”

Harrell and Williams agree that it is the small indignities that have the biggest impact.

“What we’re finding with discrimination is that chronic, ongoing stress has a bigger effect than big, one-time stress events,” Williams says. He likens it to the effect of dripping water on concrete; each drip on its own doesn’t matter much. Bur over time, the damage is considerable.

Not only does the constant barrage of negative feedback erode a sense of safety and belonging, it also creates an underlying hyper-awareness, or vigilance.

A study published in the May 2012 American Journal of Public Health finds: “… merely anticipating prejudice leads to both psychological and cardiovascular stress responses. These results are consistent with the conceptualization of anticipated discrimination as a stressor and suggest that vigilance for prejudice may be a contributing factor to racial/ethnic health disparities in the United States.”

Williams says, “People who report higher levels of vigilance also report poorer sleep. It’s as if you can never fully relax; you’re always on alert to protect yourself.”

Although the link between health and the effects of discrimination is now firmly established, Williams says it will take time for these considerations to trickle into health professional training and academic programs, but there are already some signs of progress.

“There’s a big demand on therapists to have that [understanding]. I think [health providers] curtsey to it, they say the right things, but they have no idea what this experience means,” he says. “It’s got to be saturated into every form of health learning. It’s tough, but if you want to be effective that’s what you got to do.”