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Race and Medicine: How Racism Slowly Chips Away at Black People’s Health

By: Priscilla Ward    |    May 07, 2021
Race and Medicine: How Racism Slowly Chips Away at Black People’s Health

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Enduring is all I have. It’s what my ancestors passed on. This is Race and Medicine, a series dedicated to unearthing the uncomfortable and sometimes life-threatening truth about racism in healthcare. By highlighting the experiences of Black people and honoring their health journeys, we look to a future where medical racism is a thing of the past.

A close relative asked if I watched the full videos of the most recent series of “open season” on Black life: the violence against Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, to name a few.

The truth is, I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to endure watching these videos.

I’m just trying to stay well so I don't compromise my immune system and catch a life threatening virus that’s attacking people’s respiratory systems. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement is ironically echoed by the slogan “I can’t breathe.”

I want to watch these videos to shake off my numbness, even go out and protest. Unfortunately, maintaining my health won’t allow me to show up in this way.

I sometimes find myself in bed trying to sleep long enough to miss the endless terrorizing news cycle with no trigger warnings. I’m overwhelmed and angry, and there’s no justice in sight.

With each shooting, life gets put on hold while I try to reckon again. I conjure up coping mechanisms for now. Running, cooking, and listening to music tend to divert my attention just long enough before the next news story.

However, I still feel burdened by this cycle, like there’s truly no escaping this racist society. Enduring is all I have. It’s what my ancestors passed on.

We are all focusing on protecting both our physical and our mental health during this pandemic; however, navigating this crisis is especially difficult for African Americans.

COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the Black community. Black people are more likely to be essential workers in frontline jobs and are at a higher risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

On top of that, Black people are still fighting and marching to end systemic injustice. It all serves to reinforce how trivial Black life is considered in America. The weight of this reality is more than exhausting — it’s deteriorating.

The Black struggle, named

Arline Geronimus, a Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan, developed the term weatheringin 1992 to best describe what's taking place.

Geronimus’ study found racial inequalities in health across a range of biological systems among adults. The study also found that these inequalities can’t be explained by racial differences in poverty.

Geronimus spoke with Healthline about her work.

“Weathering is... what happens to your body in a racist society. I named it weathering because I saw it as a way of capturing what it does,” Geronimus says. “Weathering happens when Black people have to demonstrate...resiliency in a racist society.”

There are numerous ways weathering can take place, from passing on trauma from one generation to the next, to workplace inequality, to facing everyday bias.

These factors force a level of resiliency that causes Black people’s health to erode at a much faster rate than that of white counterparts.

All of the self-care sessions, healthy eating, and meditative practices in the world, while beneficial, unfortunately can't undo the impactof living in a racist society.

A case study

Geronimus shared that while she was a student at Princeton University in the late 1970s, she volunteered at Planned Parenthood in Trenton, New Jersey.

Geronimus used her time at Planned Parenthood as a case study for the ways Black people are burdened with wide-ranging social issues. She spent 30 years looking at the ways everyday environmental stressors played out on vulnerable populations.

There, she began to note that Black teenage coworkers were suffering from chronic health conditions that her white peers rarely experienced.

During her graduate studies, she came up with the concept of weathering.

When she first coined the term, she was met with opposition by academic circles. They argued that Black communities had worse health outcomes because of unhealthy life choices and genetics.

Over time, the science of genetics and stress became better understood, and Geronimus' "weathering" hypothesis earned validity.

During her time at Planned Parenthood, Geronimus recounts the cultural climate.

“There was this idea that you could fight poverty with the pill. Well, the Black Panthers — among others — pointed out that this was a genocidal statement, not to mention that it wasn’t true. This was not the fundamental root cause,” she says.

More harmful myths

Coinciding with the issue of teen pregnancy, the term “superpredator” was coined in 1995 by John Dilulio, a then-Princeton University professor.

DiIulio used the term to describe a juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, and maim without giving it a second thought.

Although the theory was disavowed, the damage had already been done.

The superpredator theory was embedded in social policies and used by law enforcement to target Black youth. It ultimately resulted in longer jail sentences.

All of this added to existing myths about Black people, racist stereotypes, and negative public opinion. In an even more hostile environment, Black people experienced more weathering.

The series "When They See Us" on Netflix is a great example of the harm these kinds of myths can do, how they are used to manipulate public opinion, and how they damage Black well-being.

Knowing what racism means

“People didn’t understand systemic racism, not that they understand now, but they at least know the word. People believed that [Black] people were poor because they had too many kids,” Geronimus says.

With the Black Lives Matter movement, everyone is suddenly talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Weathering is fundamentally about the equity and inclusion part,” Geronimus says.

Many workplaces have gotten good at the diversity part, but they haven’t figured out the equity and inclusion element.

Unfortunately, representation does not always equal a more equitable environment. True equity happens when Black people are included in decision-making processes, when their experiences aren't minimized, and when people are willing to have uncomfortable conversations.

On top of that, most workplaces aren’t talking about why equity and inclusion are so important from a health perspective, and this is essential.

Important conversations — and more importantly actions — continue to be postponed and even dismissed as not necessary to solution-building.

Protecting yourself

While Geronimus notes that there aren’t any clear-cut ways for individuals to protect themselves from weathering, she notes that continuing to take a stand makes a difference.

“I suggest taking an oppositional gaze and understanding that what's going on is not normal. I think that to the extent that some people can continue to protest and push for systemic change that would ultimately be good,” she says.

She also suggests that those fighting racism don’t take on the burden by themselves.

“I do think it can be stress-reducing to try and understand with eyes wide open that you are not at fault, you are not responsible for doing this all on your own, and you couldn’t [do it alone] if you wanted to,” says Geronimus.  

Reversing the trend

Resiliency shouldn’t have to involve reduced health outcomes brought on by the endless fight for justice.

It’s essential that corporations, institutions, friends, and colleagues truly put their rhetorical statements about combating racism into action.

Black health has for too long been at risk, and we can’t afford to erode anymore.

Race and Medicine: How Racism Slowly Chips Away at Black People’s Health
Race and Medicine: How Racism Slowly Chips Away at Black People’s Health
meet the author

Priscilla Ward

Priscilla Ward is a D.C. based writer, running enthusiast, music lover, currently dreaming of her next international travel destination post-quarantine. She's also the founder of BLCKNLIT, amplifying Black culture through storytelling and events.


Healthline has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

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