February 27, 2019

Racism, Stress, and Health

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

This past weekend I was shopping at the grocery store. This wasn’t the grocery store I usually shop at, but while doing other errands in this part of town I figured I’d stop in and get this errand done too. It’s a bigger location than our local store but part of the same chain, and they have a greater selection than at my usual store.

As I was checking out, a commotion started in the front of the store. A customer was being escorted by out a security guard. I’m not sure what prompted the security guard’s action, as the store is rather big and they were walking from the other side of the store from where I stood. As people started to notice the commotion, tension hung in the air.

The man started to taunt the security guard, saying, “What are you going to do, boy?” The use of the word “boy” to describe the guard, who appeared to be African American, drew more attention and gasps. This was taking place in West Los Angeles, a supposed bastion of progressive values and racial diversity.

As this word drew more people’s attention, the man used it more. “Come on, boy, what are you going to do, boy?” The security guard had clearly been provoked and was getting angry, now yelling back and telling the man to leave the store. Another security guard came between the two of them and tried de-escalate the situation. The checkout clerk from our line, a woman who appeared to be middle-aged and African American, also intervened, yelling to the security guard, “Ignore it! He’s not worth it! He’s not worth losing your job!”

The use of the word “boy” to describe an African American man has a history that dates back to slavery and during the period of segregation known as Jim Crow to demean and emasculate black men. (See this essay for more explanation.) It appeared that the man using the term purposely did so to insult the security guard.

The man being escorted out of the store seemed to be either mentally impaired or intoxicated, but regardless of the reason for his behavior, his words hurt. When our checkout clerk returned, she apologized for stepping away from the register. She seemed stressed and took a few deep breaths, reminding herself and her co-workers that this was not about them, to let it go and move on.

I asked her if she was okay. “Oh, yeah, something like this happens here every day,” she told me. I wasn’t sure if she meant unruly customers were removed from the store or racially charged incidents happened each day. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I told her. “Yeah, it’s just the way things are these days.”

It’s easy to write this incident off as an isolated case of an incident caused by someone not fully in control of their faculties. Maybe others didn’t hear the man or understand the significance of the use of the term “boy” in this context. But incidents like these can take a toll on people’s health. A growing body of research examines the effects of racism on both mental and physical health. Some studies even suggest that experiencing racism is a risk factor leading to higher infant mortality due to stress placed on pregnant women.

Stress is one of the most common effects of racism. As this article in The Atlantic details, chronic stress takes a toll on one’s body and sometimes leads to less-than-healthy coping mechanisms. Racism is of course not the only source of stress in people’s lives, but one large-scale study concluded that African Americans report both physical and emotional stress at a rate of about double their white counterparts.

Powerlessness can also cause stress. In the unique experience of retail workers, they must manage their emotions and not speak freely if customers treat them rudely. Their livelihood depends on their ability to not react and instead internalize their anger. Incidents like these likely impact people in retail and other service sector industries even more significantly, as they are exposed to a wide array of the public’s unregulated behavior.

As someone who is neither African American nor currently working in retail, just observing this incident was stressful for me. For those that have experiences like this more often, chronic stress can have serious health effects, including chronic pain, respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

While different people may not react to the same incidents in the same way—and observers might not understand why some things upset others—it’s important to understand that these events have real health consequences, and that these effects accumulate over time. Yes, rudeness of all stripes causes stress, but for people who endure discrimination on a regular basis research suggests that this is not just a personal problem, but a public health issue as well.


This post is very informative

Drunk Old Racist man Bully in london train gets confronted?


It’s horrible. You should think people is over the racism comments. We are all the same just because we all don't know to look the same doesn't mean people should be treated any differently. That is very stressful to have to go through stuff like this and try to ignore it.

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