Racism impacts your health
Outside in public: Smiling, dressed real fine, manners on point. I am well schooled on how to be respectful, how to take up space, how to use silence when necessary. Travelling home on transit listening to music to drown out my day — filled with injustices from the minute I left my “sanctuary” ten hours earlier. Fumbling for keys, nearly pushing the door down to my home. All I experienced outside threatens to crash down my door and engulf my insides and swallow me whole. My breath struggles to calm itself. Grief shadows me through the hallway. I self-talk my way into the kitchen, slipping my armour off; my thick silver bangle hits the floor, the sound awakening me to reality. I am home. I sit still for a minute and contemplate how I will go out again to face the monster of anti-Black racism. I drink my tea quickly, and begin to make dinner. – Feb 9, 2018, author’s journal
Witnessing and hearing stories about racism can impact your health. The feelings evoked can make you ill if not processed.
The recent news of Tina Fontaine’s trial and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley, a white farmer accused of killing a young Indigenous man, Colten Boushie, of the Red Pheasant First Nation are examples of the Canadian legal system’s commitment to the Indian Act and colonial dominance.
This ongoing colonial dominance has a transgenerational trauma impact on the health of Indigenous and colonized peoples.
Two recent examples that indicate the kind of violence that Black people experience: A school that allowed police to shackle a Black six-year old girl’s wrists and ankles; a children’s aid system that put a child refugee from Somalia into foster care yet never applied for his Canadian citizenship, so years later he received deportation orders to a country where he does not speak the language.
The impact of this colonialism and anti-Black racism on the health of Black and Indigenous peoples is elongated and insidious. We navigate systems, structures and communities that perpetuate abhorrence towards us in all aspects of our lives.
Experiencing and fighting such systems for justice for our children, ourselves and our community members has devastating effects on our health.
As a health and human rights researcher, therapist and professor who has explored the deep implications of racism, I would like to share some insights into the impacts of racism on our health.
My hope is that by doing so I create dialogue and encourage communities to continue to voice their experiences of violence and racism — in order to demand changes and ultimately create more supports.
Violence is a continuum
Health indicator statistics of Indigenous communities report increasing disparities between Indigenous and settler populations. Systemic racism affects Indigenous population’s health in various ways, this includes limited healthy food choices, inadequate living conditions and substandard health care. The infant mortality rate within Indigenous communities is almost 12 times that of settler communities.
The statistics, usually presented by state authorities, come without context or consideration to the broad range of causes — one of which is the continued exposure to state violence on a daily basis.
We have anecdotal evidence: We see loved ones, friends, ourselves and respected community leaders struggle with the emotional and physiological impacts of racism on a daily basis. While anti-Black racism’s effect on the health of Black communities is documented, studies from the U.S. are more illustrative.
In one U.S. study, researchers studied 1,574 Baltimore residents of which 20 per cent reported that they had been racially discriminated against “a lot.” This same group had higher systolic blood pressure than those who perceived they had been discriminated against very little. Additionally, over a five-year period the group that felt they had been discriminated against “a lot” had higher declines in kidney function.
In a 1997 to 2003 study on racial discrimination and breast cancer in U.S. Black women, researchers found that perceived experiences of racism resulted in increased incidents of breast cancer, especially among young Black women. In 2011, a pivotal study on the impact of racism on health scholars linked lifetime experiences of discrimination to higher prevalence of hypertension in African Americans.