The effects of living in a patriarchal, racist society measurably erode Black women’s physical and mental well being, an emerging body of research finds.
Over time, this steady drip of double-discrimination can lead to higher maternal mortality and lower birth weight rates, hypertension and heart disease, aggressive cancers, and psychological issues, to name a few effects.
“Although the evidence is somewhat mixed, the consensus is that self-reported racial discrimination is associated with a variety of health outcomes — most prevalent being birth outcomes, cardio health concerns…also depression and psychological stress,” says Amani Nuru-Jeter, associate professor of public health at University of California.
Nuru-Jeter, an epidemiologist who has contributed research on these issues, adds that there are lab-based, literature-based, and anecdotal studies to show the link between discrimination and poor mental and physical health.
While discrimination touches most people at one time or another for various reasons, Black women experience the double-whammy of racism and sexism — and even the triple burden of homophobia for gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming Black women.
“In general, we know that African Americans report experiencing [racial] discrimination more than Whites. But with Black women, issues of gender come into play,” Nuru-Jeter says.
Women are much more likely than men to experience “network stress,” she explains—when people close to them express their pains and frustrations, they feel that stress indirectly. Men, on the other hand, are more likely than women to only experience the stress that happens to them. This is likely due to the way boys and girls are raised to fit gender norms, with girls being steered toward empathetic nurturing, even at the expense of their own emotional and mental wellness.
Black women report an overwhelming sense of obligation to those around them, in addition to living at the intersection of societal racial discrimination, and gender discrimination even within their community. Nuru-Jeter says that this sense of obligation leaves little room for Black women to express and deal with the stress of everyday slights against their worth as people.
“One of the ways in which chronic discrimination gets into the body and becomes anxiety, depressive episodes, or low birth weights, is in the ways we cope,” Nuru-Jeter says. “We know from psychological [research] that suppressing emotions is bad for your health.”
When Black women do seek acknowledgement and fair resolutions regarding the racist and sexist jabs they meet, they often run into roadblocks.
“This area of research is met with a lot of criticism because some people…don’t think [race discrimination] exists in this day and age,” Nuru-Jeter explains.
“One question might be, how do we known it’s racial discrimination, and not other stress, because we all experience chronic stress. We have experimental data; we go into a lab and we…manipulate only one thing. Then we can measure cortisol [a hormone triggered by stress], heart health, and so on.”
Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment for the National Women’s Law Center, sees similar misunderstandings in legal situations. When the layered discrimination Black women face is acknowledged, it is often met with disdain.
“For African American girls in particular, there have been a number of cases…that really highlight the harassment and violence and inappropriate response by schools.
So a [Black girl] speaks up about violence in her school, and the school takes disciplinary action against her,” Graves says. “That sends a message that we don’t; believe Black girls’ experiences.”
Black women often decide that the best option is to endure in silence.
“People don’t want to risk retaliation. The retaliation is a big deal—people risk their jobs, they risk losing their educational status, there’s retaliation that comes in the form of harassment—so there’s a lot at stake,” says Graves. “What ends up happening is, a lot of people never come forward at all. These are the stressors of discrimination…that people end up holding on to.”
To prevent the slow damage of these stressors, Graves says people who are experiencing discrimination should document what happens to them, and tell others—even friends—about incidents when they happen. This documentation and multiple sources can corroborate patterns and serve as evidence to have issues properly addressed.
Nuru-Jeter advocates practicing self-care as the primary priority, and seeking a listening ear when needed. “Research is ongoing, but we’re trying to come up with ideas [for prevention],” Nuru-Jeter says. “African Americans in general should not have to experience discrimination at all…. [But] that’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
Thanks to NNPA for sharing this story with us.