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Coping With the Stress of Racism

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The relationship between stress and health has been well established. Epidemiological and clinical data have long revealed the unhealthy effects of racism are a stressor for African Americans. From the recent racially charged riots on the streets of London to the increasingly blatant racially tinged attacks on America’s first African American President, Barack Obama, racism is alive and well throughout our global society.

Repetitive stressors whether it’s living in neighborhoods that suffer from problems such as high rates of crime, recreational drug infestation, low quality schools, high unemployment, food insecurity, financial difficulties, inadequate housing, disparities in health care or racism in the community and workplace can lead to unhealthy outcomes.

Emotional stressors can contribute to severe and deadly health consequences such as hypertension, heart attack, ulcers, low back pain, and depression.

Be it subtle, or overt, racism has permeated the psyche of America. It’s a yoke Blacks have been shackled with for generations.

Racism like terrorism affects individuals in different ways. Anything that causes fear or discomfort or threatens your security in any way can cause extreme stress in your life which results in the fight or flight response.

Racist related stress and the debilitating effects it causes can be avoided. Just as we learn to protect our mental and physical selves from the indignities of terrorism, we can learn how to deal with conscious and unconscious effects of racism and still succeed.

My personal response to racism has been to fight back. On the other hand some individuals become overwhelmed and sublimate the stressors of daily life. This can lead to negative health behaviors.

I grew up in a low rent project in Harlem. I experienced firsthand the psychological distress and depressive symptoms of discrimination. I was denied access to a prestigious prep school in New York City because school officials believed I was not smart enough. My parents stepped in and reversed the situation. The memory of that incident and the lessons that they instilled in me as a human being have been one of the driving forces in my life. Still there is no one answer when dealing with racism.

Parents have a primary responsibility of teaching their children about racism and how to handle it. They should provide compassionate, age-specific information rather than leave youngsters on their own unaware and ungrounded to experience it. Children should be exposed as early as possible to stories, books, films that introduce historical figures and events in history that illustrate survival, resiliency and success in combating racism.

Some situations don’t warrant redress because they are not worth the mental/physical/spiritual energy. As a people we must be vigilant and educate ourselves and our children about the existence of racism in its various forms and develop various situational-specific, strategic responses.

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