I often wonder why so many of my black women friends have died so early. Specifically, I have had the joy of being a member of a black and white women’s support group for more than twenty-five years. During these years in our group of seven to nine members, all of the original white members remained healthy and three of the black members passed away.
As a white woman, I not only miss my friends, but I have been bewildered by these differences in our mortality. Let me be clear — our members have very few differences in our backgrounds and life experiences other than race. We are all middle-class professional women raised in middle-class professional two-parent households. We are all college educated and about the same age. Race is what differentiates us.
Recent studies on infant and maternal mortality in the United States reported in the New York Times Magazine by Linda Villarosa opened my eyes and gave me some language to explain what may have caused the early deaths of my black women friends. While none of the three women in our group died from causes related to maternity or childbirth, the findings in these studies seem to explain a lot more about health disparities between African American and white women than just higher rates of infant and maternal mortality. Infant and maternal mortality rates are, however, both shocking and what led researchers to their broader conclusions about the impact of race on health. Villarosa reports on several examples from recent studies:
- Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — a racial disparity that is actually wider now than it was in 1850, fifteen years before the end of slavery.
- Education and income offer little protection. A black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.
Villarosa cites seminal research by Dr. Arline Geronimus, published in 1992, that first linked stress and black infant mortality in her theory of weathering. Villarosa explains that Dr. Geronimus “believed that a kind of toxic stress triggered the premature deterioration of the bodies of African-American women as a consequence of repeated exposure to a climate of discrimination and insults” — in other words, the lived experience of race in this country.
In 1997 a team of female researchers from Boston and Howard Universities expanded on earlier studies showing the health effects of racism. Villarosa reports that their research concluded that “the bone-deep accumulation of traumatizing life experiences and persistent insults” results in the sustained, long term release of stress hormones, which can lead to wear and tear on the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems, making the body vulnerable to illness and even early death. This wear and tear is the process mentioned previously called weathering by Dr. Geronimus.
In 2006, Dr. Geronimus and her colleagues found that, even when controlling for income and education, African American women had the highest levels of stress-associated body chemicals — higher than both white women and black men. The researchers concluded that “persistent racial differences in health may be influenced by the stress of living in a race-conscious society. These effects may be felt particularly by black women because of [the] double jeopardy of gender and racial discrimination.”
Deeply ingrained stereotypes about women and people of color are literally killing black women. I recently saw a sign that said “White Silence Is Violence.” As a white woman, I urge other whites to take action:
- Become aware of the deeply ingrained stereotypes in our society about people of color.
- Become aware of our own unconscious bias and white privilege and talk with other white people about what you are learning.
- Watch for and speak out when you see discrimination or unfair treatment of a person in any minority group.
Change starts with each of us, and our society will change when we change.
Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’
Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on June 4, 2018.