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Research clearly establishes that racism takes a toll on the mental and physical health of African-Americans.
This occurs because racist interactions elicit an automatic physical stress reaction that includes increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, along with a release of stress hormones. This stress response, often referred to as the flight-or-flight response, leads to inflammatory reactions in the body.
Research has found that repeated activation of this stress response contributes to high blood pressure, leads to heart disease, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. There is also evidence showing that chronic stress may contribute to obesity by causing people to eat more along with affecting sleeping and exercise patterns.
A new and growing body of evidence also shows that everyday experiences of racism can harm relationships.
Researchers from the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) wanted to find out more about this phenomenon. For their study, they recruited 98 African-American couples in committed relationships and asked them to document their daily experiences of discrimination and moods for three weeks.
They found that participants’ feelings about their relationships changed based on their partners’ reactions to day-to-day racial discrimination. That is, when one partner had a negative reaction to experiencing discrimination, the other was more likely to feel the relationship was suffering, and, specifically, to feel less passion for their partner. Over time, people with partners who had strong reactions to racial discrimination experienced lower levels of satisfaction with their long-term relationships.
An earlier study by BCTR researcher Anthony Ong yielded similar results. Ong used data that followed married couples over the course of 10 years, assessing how they reacted to daily stressors and how they felt about their marriages. (This study wasn’t specifically about racial discrimination, but all types of daily stressors.)
Ong found that when stress led to feelings of emotional distress – such as anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, and irritability – participants experienced lower marital satisfaction. Over the course of 10 years, participants who reacted more negatively to daily stress were more likely to get divorced.
“These findings suggest more attention should be paid to the interpersonal effects of racism-related stress in African American couples,” Ong said, “Heightened affective reactivity to daily encounters of racial discrimination – essentially irritability in response to racism – may reflect an embedded history of racism.”
What’s the take-home message? Racism is harmful in many ways, including to the long-term relationships of people who experience discrimination. Evidence shows this harm is amplified when racial discrimination affects a person’s daily mood.