By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
In his new book, Black Man in a White Coat, Dr. Damon Tweedy, argues racism is bad for your health.
Tweedy, a practicing psychiatrist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke where he was trained, said he noticed the presence of people of color often launched a type of toxicity that he noticed in steps and stages.
Of his first experience with racism as a student at Duke, Tweedy said while promoting his new book on National Public Radio, “I was coming into the classroom after a break and he (the professor) comes up to me, somewhat angrily, and asks me about fixing the lights and that he called about this earlier and that I was late in my job.”
“And so, clearly, this was a case of mistaken identity,” Tweedy said. “When I told him, you know, that I’m actually a student in his class, he looked at me very baffled, like someone was playing a joke on him, and just walked away.”
“At the time, it was very hurtful and created a lot of self-doubt,” said Tweedy who entered medical school believing his segregated, working-class background would become irrelevant. Instead he found himself grappling with race, bias, and the type of toxicity that produces unique health problems for African Americans including depression, higher rates of hypertension, higher consumption of alcohol, as well as higher abdominal obesity rates.
Tweedy said of his first brush with racism at Duke, “Looking back on it – it’s nearly 20 years ago now – it’s kind of amusing in a way because … I’m basically the most non-handy person around the house.”
The problem is a new study shows racism is hardly amusing. The new study, which examined racism’s impact on various races, showed it produces a lingering type of toxicity that shortens many lives. Specifically, the authors of the new study that appears in the Sept. 17 issue of the American Journal of Public Health said, “Blacks and Whites who live in communities with a high level of racial prejudice have higher mortality rates.”
All races are at risk, in other words. The landmark study that examined racial prejudice as a multilevel risk factor found that “individuals who were exposed to a racist atmosphere tend to have higher mortality rates. Living in (a) highly prejudiced society is harmful for both blacks and whites,” the report noted.
A case-in-point is a Thai-Cambodian woman in Oregon who is trying to raise money on a crowdfund page because she claims racism has destroyed her health. Rinna Rem, who lives in Portland, has already raised nearly $1,500.
White Friends, Pay for My Therapy: This is the title that Rem wrote on her crowdfunding page. Underneath, she wrote, “The stress of living as a Thai-Cambodian woman in such a white city replete with constant interpersonal and institutional racism has (taken) a big toll on my health and wellbeing.”
“I see an amazing therapist to cope with this shit, but I spend $100/month on therapy for bi-weekly appointments,” said Ram, 29. “Now it’s your turn to pay!”
Ram said racism caused her to develop depression and a connective-tissue disorder called Marfan’s Syndrome.
But Tweedy’s new book shows why racism is so toxic. Whether it was the time Tweedy aced his medical tests, hurried to his first class, and the professor asked him to repair the lights in the classroom. Or the time a white patient said he did not want a n— doctor. Soon the patient’s relative returned to the hospital room wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag.
The point is it never stopped. It never let up.
The problem is neither the racist nor the target slows their roll in real life. In plain terms, racism produces stress in all human beings. Since stress is a human reaction which produces hormones that make the heart pump harder, blood vessels constrict, and blood slows from limbs to the brain.
Racially prejudiced people can experience stress while walking through the supermarket, coffee shop, or workplace, Elizabeth Page-Gould noted in a 2010 study. “If the racist person then has to go through this every single day, the repeated stress can become a chronic problem, which places them at heightened risk for disease in later life.”
“When we think about the victims of racism, we typically think of the immediate targets,” Page-Gould wrote. “But new research has identified another, unlikely group of victims: the racists themselves.”
And this is where that new study on how racism’s affects everyone comes in once again. Blacks know racism is toxic. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, and President Barack Obama’s landmark election made the lesson crystal clear.
But whites turn a blind eye to racism for several reasons. “Because whites live primarily segregated lives in a white-dominated society, they receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity,” said Dr. Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, a report that was published in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy in 2011 and is gaining traction in the media.
“Further, white people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives,” DiAngelo wrote.
“Whites have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is ‘wrong,’ and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color).”
“This blame results in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moves against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization; retaliation; isolation; ostracization; and refusal to continue engagement,” DiAngelo continued.
“White insistence on racial comfort ensures that racism will not be faced.”