There is no shortage of evidence that racism persists, just ask one of the world’s most popular, gifted and recognized athletes, LeBron James.
The sports superstar issued a searing and personal response to the discovery of racist graffiti spray-painted outside his Los Angeles home using a news conference to deliver a somber soliloquy about race in America on the eve of the NBA Finals.
Recently, high-profile incidents have focused attention on how people can be treated differently by authority figures, such as police officers, because of their race. However, the majority of discrimination experiences are much more subtle.
In fact, subtle bias may actually be more mentally damaging that overt bias. This is because overt bias can be more easily dismissed as ignorance. However, subtle bias is able to “get under the skin” to influence physical health.
In recent years, there has been a growing amount of research highlighting the effects of racial discrimination on not only mental health, but also physical health. Discrimination may influence physical health through changes in stress physiology functioning.
As an example: African Americans experiencing racism has been associated with higher evening cortisol levels, which are considered unhealthy. Similarly, a study among Hispanic youth found that racist experiences were associated with higher cortisol levels across the day.
Cortisol and other hormones in the stress physiology system are important for maintaining immune, reproductive, and cardiovascular health. Therefore changes in this system as a result of experiences of discrimination can adversely affect everything from your body’s ability to fight infection to your ability to become pregnant.
The quantity of evidence supporting the relationship between discrimination and physical health is staggering. And yet discrimination may have even greater impacts than was initially recognized.
Understanding the link between discrimination experience and poor health is an important first step towards raising awareness of this issue. But something obviously needs to be done in order to improve the health and well-being of all members of society. Continuing to identify and call out the institutional and interpersonal experiences of discrimination is a necessary first step.
Interventions aimed at increasing social support and ethnic identity will likely increase resilience to discrimination experience. Tools, such as the implicit bias test, exist to help people identify their own biases that they may be unaware of. Recognizing the potential for subtle bias is necessary before anything can be done to address it.