Warning: Racism is bad for your health

From: Greater Good, the Science of a Meaningful Life August 2010

When we think about the victims of racism, we typically think of the immediate targets of racial prejudice: Those who have suffered at the hand of discrimination and oppression. But new research has identified another, unlikely group of victims: the racists themselves.


In the urban metropolises of the United States and Canada, it is almost impossible to avoid talking to someone of another race. So imagine the toll it would take if every time you did, your body responded with an acute stress reaction: You experience a surge in stress hormones, and your heart pumps harder while your blood vessels constrict, inhibiting the flow of blood to your limbs and brain.

These types of bodily reactions are helpful in truly dangerous situations, but a number of recent studies have found that racially prejudiced people experience them even during benign social interactions with people of different races. This means that just navigating the supermarket, coffee shop, or modern workplace can be stressful for them. And if the racist person then has to go through this every single day, the repeated stress can become a chronic problem, which places them at heightened risk for disease in later life.

Harboring prejudice, it seems, may be bad for your health.

Challenge vs. threat
The human body is incredibly adaptive to stressful situations. But our nervous system reacts very differently to stressful situations we perceive as challenges than to those we see as threats. It’s a distinction that, in the long run, could mean the difference between life and death for people with racial prejudices.

Challenges incite a sequence of physiological responses that send more blood to our muscles and brains, enhancing our physical and cognitive performance. Threats, on the other hand, set off a physiological response that restricts our blood flow and releases the hormone cortisol, which breaks down muscle tissue and halts digestive processes so that the body can quickly muster the energy it needs to confront the threat. Over time, these responses wear down muscles, including the heart, and damage the immune system.

In other words, facing challenges is good for you; facing threats is not. And whether you perceive interracial interactions as a challenge or a threat may be the key to thriving in a multicultural society.

In one study, Wendy Berry Mendes, Jim Blascovich, and their colleagues invited European-American men into the laboratory to engage in social interactions with African-American men or with men of the same race as themselves. The participants were hooked up to equipment that measured the responses of their autonomic nervous system while they played the game Boggle with their white or black partners.

More on Are We Born Racist?

Read more about the book, or order your copy 

Read Susan Fiske’s essay on the new science of racism 

Read Allison Briscoe-Smith’s essay on teaching tolerance to kids 

When interacting with African-American partners, the white men tended to respond as to a physiological threat, marked by diminished blood pumped through the heart and constriction of the circulatory system. However, European Americans who had positive experiences with African Americans in the past responded as though the game posed a challenge—increased blood pumped by the heart and dilation of the circulatory system.

This is not an isolated result. In a study with Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Linda Tropp, I randomly paired European-American and Latino participants into same-race and cross-race pairs and had them disclose personal information to each other. At the beginning and end of the social interaction, participants provided saliva samples so we could measure their cortisol responses to the social interactions.

Both Latino and European American participants who scored high on a measure of automatic prejudice—the degree to which you associate certain ethnic groups with the concepts of “bad” and “good”—had increases in cortisol during the friendly interaction with a cross-race partner, but produced less cortisol when interacting with a same-race partner. By comparison, participants who were low in prejudice were not stressed during either cross-race or same-race interactions.

In other words, prejudiced individuals perceived partners of a different race as a physical threat, even though they were in a safe laboratory setting and engaging in a task that was structured to build closeness between the participant pairs. This was true for both Latino and European-American participants who were prejudiced. Imagine these same individuals trying to negotiate a racially diverse street scene or meeting at work.

In another study, Wendy Berry Mendes and her colleagues invited European Americans to take a survey over the Internet, measuring their levels of automatic prejudice against African Americans. These white participants were then invited to a laboratory where either European Americans or African Americans evaluated participants, as if in a job interview.

Again, as in the study I did with my colleagues, cortisol spiked in the relatively racist participants—and at the same time, their bodies released low levels of DHEA-S, a hormone that helps repair tissue damage caused by the taxing “flight or fight” response. In contrast, the more egalitarian participants—those who scored low in automatic prejudice—responded to the interracial interaction with greater increases in DHEA-S than cortisol, which suggests that they saw the evaluation more as a healthy challenge than as a threat.

A healthy society?
The bottom line is clear: Harboring racist feelings in a multicultural society causes daily stress; this kind of stress can lead to chronic problems like cancer, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. But interracial interactions are not inherently stressful. Low-prejudice people show markedly different physiological responses during interracial interactions. In all three of these studies, people who had positive attitudes about people of other races responded to interracial interactions in ways that were happy, healthy, and adaptive.

These positive attitudes can be learned; prejudiced people are not doomed to be that way forever. In my own study with Latino and European-American participants, we randomly assigned racist participants—those who were measurably stressed out by simple cross-race conversations—to complete a series of friendship-building tasks over several weeks with people of a different race. Over the next several weeks, we watched cortisol levels diminish in prejudiced participants, a trend that lasted throughout the friendship meetings. Furthermore, in the 10 days following their final friendship meeting, prejudiced participants who had made a cross-race friend in the lab sought out more daily interracial interactions afterward.

It’s that simple: Building friendships with people of other races seems to eliminate unhealthy stress responses, so that each new interaction can be greeted as a challenge instead of a threat. In a racially diverse society, those who feel comfortable with people of other races are at an advantage over those who do not.

These results have profound implications for the way we design our neighborhoods and institutions; indeed, they suggest that race-mixing policies like affirmative action might be just as good for white people as for people of color. The future health of racist people is not set in stone. If they’re willing to take the first step and reach out to people of other groups in a friendly way, they may learn to thrive in a society that is increasingly diverse.


The Toxic Power of Racism


From Newsweek 2008:

Recent studies document the harmful effects of discrimination on our health.

A growing body of research during the past few years indicates that one of the most glaring inequalities experienced by African-Americans is the disparity in health care that they receive. This week, for example, the New York Times reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs found that black patients “tend to receive less aggressive medical care than whites” at its hospitals and clinics, in part because doctors provide them with less information and see them as “less appropriate candidates” for some types of surgery.

Statistics tell the story. A new government report found the difference in life expectancy between poor black men and affluent white women to be more than 14 years (66.9 vs. 81.1 years)! African-Americans have a higher risk of dying from chronic ailments such as coronary heart disease and high blood pressure than any other ethnic group. Only part of this disparity is explained by differences in income and access to adequate medical care. On average, the most affluent African-Americans suffer more health problems than the least affluent whites.

In the past decade more than 100 studies have been published documenting the harmful effects of racial discrimination on a variety of health measures in African-American men and women. For example, a recent study that followed nearly 60,000 African-American women for six years found that women who reported on-the-job racial discrimination had a 32 percent higher risk of breast cancer than others who did not. Women who said they faced racial discrimination on the job, in housing and from the police were 48 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who reported no incidents of major discrimination. Another study of African-American women found that those who reported chronic emotional stress due to their experience of racism had more severely blocked carotid arteries (which supply blood to the brain) than those who did not. In yet another study perceived racism was associated with a significantly increased risk of uterine fibroids in black women, and this was unrelated to differences in health care utilization.

Some critics say that racism cannot be objectively measured and so does not lend itself to rigorous research. However, the latest studies show that it is theperception of chronic stress that determines whether or not it is harmful. For example, two people in the same job may react very differently to a boss’s demands—one may perceive them as an exciting challenge and not experience them as stressful, whereas the other person may experience them as chronically stressful and have a higher likelihood of illness. While the experience of racism, like any chronic stress, is subjective, the harmful effects can be quite real. The effects can be both direct (increased blood pressure, decreased immune function) and indirect (more smoking, drinking and overeating, less exercise and social support).

This area of research is controversial for some, as it can be misused to further polarize and fan the flames of anger and blame. To me, however, awareness is the first step in transformation and healing. Chronic hostility, fear and hatred are among the most toxic forms of stress. Chronic stress due to racism affects everyone, not just African-Americans. As Senator Obama shared, “a similar anger exists within segments of the white community.” Even his beloved white grandmother, who “once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe … Resentment builds over time.” In another example, Arab-Americans experienced a period of increased harassment, violence and workplace discrimination in the weeks immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. A study of pregnant Arab-American women in the six months following 9/11 compared with a year earlier found a significantly elevated relative risk of poor birth outcomes.

Well then, what can we do about it? As we understand how chronic stress leads to illness, we begin to understand even more profoundly that how we treat each other, and how we talk with each other, matters—not only in our quality of life but even in our survival. “Just words” can harm or heal. We can all find many reasons to righteously justify our anger and fear, but we have more constructive choices. When we can connect the dots between what we do and how much we suffer—from both chronic stress and increased illness—then we can make different choices that are a lot more enjoyable and healthful.

When we are angry with someone, we empower the person we hate the most in that moment to make us stressed out or even sick. That’s not smart. Seen from that perspective, the most “selfish” thing we can do is to be more compassionate, tolerant and forgiving. When we forgive someone, it doesn’t excuse their actions; it frees us from our own chronic stress and suffering, so it’s in our own self-interest.

As then-President Bill Clinton said in his address to the Nigerian parliament in 2002, “Some things you just have to forgive and let go. That’s one thing I learned from my friend Nelson Mandela. I asked him, ‘When you were taking your last walk for freedom, didn’t you hate your oppressors again?’ He said, ‘I did for a while, after all. Look, they kept me for 27 years. I didn’t get to see my children grow up. I felt hatred and I was afraid. I hadn’t been free in so long.’ And then he smiled at me and he said, ‘If I still hated them when I got outside the prison gate, I would still be their prisoner.’ He said, ‘I wanted to be free, and so I let it go’.”

In his speech Senator Obama concluded, “In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand: that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”

All divisions are man-made. In an era in which war and terrorism—at home and abroad—are often based on racial, religious and ethnic differences, rediscovering the wisdom of love and compassion may help us increase our survival at a time when an increasingly divided country and world so badly need it.


I was at risk…

I’m not going to say I remember the day like it was yesterday, i’m not even sure if I remember the whole conversation. What I do remember is that it was one of the few moments that changed the way I thought about my own health and how I wanted to live my life…

It was was a day like any other day, some time last fall. I was returning a missed phone call from my mother. The message said: “It’ be nice if you could call your mother once in a while, so I know that you’re still alive!” So I decided I’d better call her back, and let her know that I was okay. But when she answered the phone, I was the one who was worried when I realized where she was talking from.
It was a little noisy in the background and I could hear somebody there with her, asking her questions about how she was feeling and if there was any discomfort.

Puzzled, I asked her where she was. She refused to tell me at first, but I pressed her until she admitted that she was at the hospital. And before I could let out my usual worried rant, she said: “I’m fine, I’m fine, don’t worry.”
But she wasn’t fine, she was on dialysis, and had been for weeks now, but chose not to tell me, because she felt like there was nothing that I could do from 100 miles away, and she didn’t want to worry me. It turns out her kidneys weren’t functioning the way that they should, a side effect of diabetes, and she needed help filtering her blood.

I didn’t understand how she could be so calm about it, or even pretend to be so calm about something so serious! And I didn’t understand why she expected me to be so calm about it! This wasn’t just the flu, or a broken arm, it was kidney failure!!! And all because she wasn’t taking care of herself the way that she should, she wasn’t watching what she ate, and she wasn’t checking her blood sugar on a regular basis, and it was starting to affect her body negatively…

I found out then that she wasn’t the only one in my family who had diabetes, but both my father and my sister also had diabetes. And all I could think about was how I was next in line. Not just because it’s hereditary, but because I was also overweight like many of the women in my family and because of the higher rate of diabetes within my Hispanic heritage.

I knew right then and there that I had to make some changes in my own life if didn’t want to get diabetes. First I needed to change the way I think…Just because I had never had a problem with high blood sugar didn’t mean that I wasn’t at risk or that I didn’t need to change. I had to think about what I really wanted out life, and how eating better and being more active could help me to more effectively accomplish my goals.


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