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Racial Stress is Real

By on April 16, 2015

Stress is always present but often difficult to describe since it affects us all in different ways.  Sometimes it’s an uneasy feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. Sometimes it’s heart palpitations.  And the onset of these feelings can be activated by many causes—relationships, finances, and even the skin you’re in.

Among other things, I study how and why racial discrimination is related to a wide array of health problems in black Americans. But how is it that one person’s perspective could possibly affect another’s mood, worth and even their health? For one, evidence from labor studies indicates that blacks are compensated at lower rates than whites despite similar levels of education and work experience. In the context of the current economic recession, the old adage of last hired, first fired has been especially true for black men who have the highest rate of unemployment in the country.

High-profile racial events, such as the Trayvon Martin tragedy, Ferguson, etc. occasionally invade our nation’s consciousness. But everyday across the country, black men silently wonder if they have received poorer treatment because of race. And many ponder whether they will one day be the unfortunate victim of mistaken identity or an overzealous police officer or private citizen.

Many black men cringe or feel internal outraged when white people are startled as they enter elevators or shoot disapproving looks at them in shared public spaces. But hardly ever is a word spoken aloud and behind closed doors, black men across America lament over the confluence of subtle humiliation and judgment they have experienced and will experience over their lives because of race.

It is an expected, yet shocking experience to be treated differently because of race. It causes one to wonder,” Was I dressed appropriately?” “Did I make it apparent enough that I needed service or a table too? Is my hair too long or nappy?”  But at a deeper level, experiences like this beg the question, don’t I deserve to be here and don’t I deserve to be treated equally.

Consider the lengths through which many blacks go through to distance themselves from stereotypes so that people can actually see their character and not just their skin color. For instance, the elaborate processes that black women go through to maintain certain hairstyles. Unequal treatment is expected to some degree because many black parents socialize their children to expect to be treated differently because of their race. T

George Warren Brown School of Social WorkHow do we reconcile the facts that not only are blacks are still viewed as pathological in some sense, their very humanity is still being publicly questioned? And in their own skin, those daily slights, looks of judgment and even contempt are accumulating in and wearing on the minds and hearts of black Americans, particularly black men.

One of the biggest supports that can help people cope with stress is sharing those experiences with others and getting their feedback. What experiences have you had with racial discrimination? How did you handle it?

Dr. Darrell Hudson is an assistant professor with the Brown School of Social Work and a faculty scholar with the Institute of Public Health at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Hudson is at the early stages of a career dedicated to the study and elimination of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in health.

Note this article was originally published in 2013



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