Greater Good Science Center Membership. Register Today
   
 

Warning: Racism Is Bad for Your Health

By Elizabeth Page-Gould | August 3, 2010 | 8 comments

Elizabeth Page-Gould explains that the targets of prejudice aren't the only ones harmed by it.

This month, Beacon Press is publishing the latest Greater Good anthology, Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. To coincide with its release, we’re featuring a sneak peak at some of the contributions to the book, including this provocative essay by psychologist Elizabeth Page-Gould. To learn more about Are We Born Racist?, click here.

When we think about the victims of racism, we typically think of the immediate targets of racial prejudice: Those who have suffered at the hand of discrimination and oppression. But new research has identified another, unlikely group of victims: the racists themselves.

Bettman/Corbis

In the urban metropolises of the United States and Canada, it is almost impossible to avoid talking to someone of another race. So imagine the toll it would take if every time you did, your body responded with an acute stress reaction: You experience a surge in stress hormones, and your heart pumps harder while your blood vessels constrict, inhibiting the flow of blood to your limbs and brain.

These types of bodily reactions are helpful in truly dangerous situations, but a number of recent studies have found that racially prejudiced people experience them even during benign social interactions with people of different races. This means that just navigating the supermarket, coffee shop, or modern workplace can be stressful for them. And 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.

Harboring prejudice, it seems, may be bad for your health.

Challenge vs. threat
The human body is incredibly adaptive to stressful situations. But our nervous system reacts very differently to stressful situations we perceive as challenges than to those we see as threats. It’s a distinction that, in the long run, could mean the difference between life and death for people with racial prejudices.

Challenges incite a sequence of physiological responses that send more blood to our muscles and brains, enhancing our physical and cognitive performance. Threats, on the other hand, set off a physiological response that restricts our blood flow and releases the hormone cortisol, which breaks down muscle tissue and halts digestive processes so that the body can quickly muster the energy it needs to confront the threat. Over time, these responses wear down muscles, including the heart, and damage the immune system.

In other words, facing challenges is good for you; facing threats is not. And whether you perceive interracial interactions as a challenge or a threat may be the key to thriving in a multicultural society.

In one study, Wendy Berry Mendes, Jim Blascovich, and their colleagues invited European-American men into the laboratory to engage in social interactions with African-American men or with men of the same race as themselves. The participants were hooked up to equipment that measured the responses of their autonomic nervous system while they played the game Boggle with their white or black partners.

When interacting with African-American partners, the white men tended to respond as to a physiological threat, marked by diminished blood pumped through the heart and constriction of the circulatory system. However, European Americans who had positive experiences with African Americans in the past responded as though the game posed a challenge—increased blood pumped by the heart and dilation of the circulatory system.

This is not an isolated result. In a study with Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Linda Tropp, I randomly paired European-American and Latino participants into same-race and cross-race pairs and had them disclose personal information to each other. At the beginning and end of the social interaction, participants provided saliva samples so we could measure their cortisol responses to the social interactions.

Both Latino and European American participants who scored high on a measure of automatic prejudice—the degree to which you associate certain ethnic groups with the concepts of “bad” and “good”—had increases in cortisol during the friendly interaction with a cross-race partner, but produced less cortisol when interacting with a same-race partner. By comparison, participants who were low in prejudice were not stressed during either cross-race or same-race interactions.

In other words, prejudiced individuals perceived partners of a different race as a physical threat, even though they were in a safe laboratory setting and engaging in a task that was structured to build closeness between the participant pairs. This was true for both Latino and European-American participants who were prejudiced. Imagine these same individuals trying to negotiate a racially diverse street scene or meeting at work.

In another study, Wendy Berry Mendes and her colleagues invited European Americans to take a survey over the Internet, measuring their levels of automatic prejudice against African Americans. These white participants were then invited to a laboratory where either European Americans or African Americans evaluated participants, as if in a job interview.

Again, as in the study I did with my colleagues, cortisol spiked in the relatively racist participants—and at the same time, their bodies released low levels of DHEA-S, a hormone that helps repair tissue damage caused by the taxing “flight or fight” response. In contrast, the more egalitarian participants—those who scored low in automatic prejudice—responded to the interracial interaction with greater increases in DHEA-S than cortisol, which suggests that they saw the evaluation more as a healthy challenge than as a threat.

A healthy society?
The bottom line is clear: Harboring racist feelings in a multicultural society causes daily stress; this kind of stress can lead to chronic problems like cancer, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. But interracial interactions are not inherently stressful. Low-prejudice people show markedly different physiological responses during interracial interactions. In all three of these studies, people who had positive attitudes about people of other races responded to interracial interactions in ways that were happy, healthy, and adaptive.

These positive attitudes can be learned; prejudiced people are not doomed to be that way forever. In my own study with Latino and European-American participants, we randomly assigned racist participants—those who were measurably stressed out by simple cross-race conversations—to complete a series of friendship-building tasks over several weeks with people of a different race. Over the next several weeks, we watched cortisol levels diminish in prejudiced participants, a trend that lasted throughout the friendship meetings. Furthermore, in the 10 days following their final friendship meeting, prejudiced participants who had made a cross-race friend in the lab sought out more daily interracial interactions afterward.

It’s that simple: Building friendships with people of other races seems to eliminate unhealthy stress responses, so that each new interaction can be greeted as a challenge instead of a threat. In a racially diverse society, those who feel comfortable with people of other races are at an advantage over those who do not.

These results have profound implications for the way we design our neighborhoods and institutions; indeed, they suggest that race-mixing policies like affirmative action might be just as good for white people as for people of color. The future health of racist people is not set in stone. If they’re willing to take the first step and reach out to people of other groups in a friendly way, they may learn to thrive in a society that is increasingly diverse.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Elizabeth Page-Gould, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Her essay is featured in the new Greater Good anthology, Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology, published by Beacon Press.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 

scientific articles that prove your assumption? Cross cultural articles that prove your assumption? Or psycho babble?

Last time I looked, the Tutsi/Hutus didn’t have a lot of diabetes or hypertension, but that didn’t stop them from killing each other a couple years back. Ditto for the Japanese, who hated the Chinese and killed a couple million for the fun of it during WWII…

tioedong | 3:39 pm, August 10, 2010 | Link

 

@Tioedong: Of course there are scientific articles
that support the ideas described here; this essay is
a review of previous research.  Here are three
classic research articles on the topic:

1. Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S. B.,
Lickel, B., & Kowai–Bell, N. (2001). Perceiver
threat in social interactions with stigmatized
others. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 80, 253–267.

2. Mendes, W. B., Gray, H., Mendoza-Denton, R.,
Major, B., & Epel, E. (2007). Why egalitarianism
might be good for your health: Physiological
thriving during stressful intergroup encounters.
Psychological Science, 18, 991–998.

3. Page-Gould, E., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Tropp,
L. R. (2008). With a little help from my cross-group
friend: Reducing anxiety in intergroup contexts
through cross-group friendship. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1080 - 1094.


In terms of your thought experiment ... are you
sure that the Hutus (the agressors in the Rwandan
genocide) don’t have higher rates of hypertension
than Africans in non-warring tribes?  Of course,
extreme violence kills people, but so do heart
attacks.  The Tutsis died at the hands of the Hutus,
so obviously heart attacks weren’t high up on their
list of worries ... but what about the Hutus?  For
the most part, they weren’t killed by anyone.  So,
what is the long-term consequence of perpetrating
such violence?  Unfortunately, I do not think that
data has been collected, but I’d put my money on
the hypothesis that Hutus in Rwanda *do* show
physiological signs of chronic stress relative to
Africans who do not belong to a warring tribe. 
Much research (and common sense) tells us that the
targets of prejudice suffer, but it is fun and
interesting to think of the more nuanced question:
how does prejudice affect those that embrace it?

Research from medical physiology, biology,
physiology, and psychophysiology all emphasize the
deleterious effects of chronic physiological stress on
long-term health.  The research reviewed for this
essay clearly demonstrates that racism predicts
physiological stress responses during benign inter-
racial interactions.  So, indeed, interracial violence
also kills people, but that doesn’t negate the
conclusion that racism predicts the activation of
physiological stress systems that are related to
long-term health and mortality.

Elizabeth Page-Gould | 11:27 am, August 11, 2010 | Link

 

Racism is a two way street, in fact most racism, certainly most violent racism, is directed against whites. The fact that whites tend to feel anxious in the company of other races could well be down to experience.

Sarah Davies | 3:34 am, October 11, 2010 | Link

 

The notion that we can lower their levels of stress by subjecting people to coërcion and to adjustive discrimination is remarkable and at best a questionable and somewhat desperate stretch, rather than a profound implication.

In any case, rather than subjecting everyone to such stressors on the theory that it will do the racists amongst them such good, let’s simply inform said racists of the costs to their health, provide uncoërced opportunities for them to get to know people of other ethnicities and to develop more accurate tools for discerning who is actually going to assault them, and leave the more resistant racists to their fates.

Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan | 10:08 pm, January 9, 2011 | Link

 

A very interesting piece however probably about as worthy as most other Socialist Theories promulgated by Keynes, which is now collapsing, Dewey/Skinner, which is now dumbing our children down and this includes so-called “multiculturalism”; an ideology entirely designed to abolish culture, the host nation’s, entirely. This is a very interesting subject to which Zygmund Dobbs touches on within his fabulous work on social pseudo-science.  I know of no credible academic studies finding “work place diversity” or “multiculturalism” benefits the respective entity; country or business, in a positive manner or increasing productivity.  I’d suggest the opposite.  A very good example of this purely intellectually impoverished schema being predicated on a highly dubious socio-political base is the simple bastardization of the definition. Throughout history “Racism”, or the more accurate historicity; “Racialism” as the subject was formerly known for a century or more, was simply the belief that one’s race; your race, was - superior - to another’s. There was no hate or bigotry involved.  Therefore something caused a blurring of definitions between a raced based bigotry and the historical racialism. One must simply research who, what, when, where, why and how. Like every political or social agenda there are goals to be achieved, in this case the age old fraudulent feudalistic cosmopolitan “Utopia” based on moral, social, cultural, religious - and in this case - ethnic relativism.  There was no “hate” in historical racism only an often identifiable ranking or opinion. If one refers to any of the early diaries kept by the Cortes/Diaz or Livingstone/Stanley one will find a distinct difference between historical racism and today’s entirely distorted terminology applied most often out of context. These two examples provide example of traditional racism by both the “White” Explorers toward the Arab and the Negro. These same diaries outline the exact same in reverse stated by various tribal Kings/Chiefs toward the “White” man, the Arab, the Turk and other Negros. 
Only according to these baseless and digressive Utopian Socialist intellectual theories are such base differences washed aside and rationalized away.  It it absolutely logical for a Negro to have respect for his entire heritage, inclusive of his/her ethnicity as it would be for an Asian and good for them!  They should be.  Just because one holds affirmation to their heritage or ethnicity does not always - in most respects - equate to bigotry.  Not at all.  The sad fact is directly attributed to the same ideology and followers of the ideology that blessed the Earth with quota systems, Affirmative Action, Hyphenated Citizens, “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are those same that has outlawed, through immense dumbing down: “Political Correctness” that cannot allow a Caucasian individual to hold any appreciation, respect or affirmation with his or her heritage or ethnicity.  If a member of a “visible minority” does the door is opened to every aspect toward social and societal “progress” while if that exact same feeling is held by the invisible majority it automatically deteriorates into a debate, or argument inclusive of all supine labeling, over “racism”.  Makes absolute sense according to the sought goals of a socio-political schema: Socialism that demands the abolition of culture via their corrosive construct known as “multiculturalism”.  If one shakes their heads and looks around the Earth today, every once progressive and truly productive - Western - nation that has embraced all of these inept and intellectually impoverished Socialist schemas has seen entire societal atrophy because of this philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.  SRA

Stephen Avrington | 4:01 pm, May 1, 2011 | Link

 

Nice analysis! We must be able to respond to threat energetically, but are well advised to reduce threat if possible. Ideally, it seems to me, through what evolutionary psychologists call reciprocal altruism. In other words, using cooperation rather than aggression to minimize the probably mayhem we are capable of visiting on one another. Unfortunately, our society is not structured to encourage us to to this. Class conflict, mainly defined for us by color, serves powerful interests very well indeed. As it always has, and has been carefully nurtured. Racism guarantees working class white people a certain freedom from want, based on more powerful white people reducing the ability of racially denigrated people to compete with them. But this contract, or deal—to accept the gift rather than organize to confront power, and perhaps pay the heavy cost of failure—is always iffy. The “little” white person has no actual strength, and no option other than to live in a state of perpetual anxiety about status. Racism is for him a kind of paranoia.
So the article is right on, but the causes and effects of what it glimpses are quite complex. Which is okay. Someone else will pick up the torch at this point.

By Files | 5:00 am, September 14, 2011 | Link

 

unfortunatly .. that’s hard to chang in people ..
because Racism is put in them when they are just kids ..
they all know that it’s wrong ..
but they don’t feel that they should cahnge..
any way thsnx for the post .. good research

asalah | 10:06 pm, September 24, 2011 | Link

 

Racism is a serious prejudice of nowadays. Many analysts have been looking deep into this issue trying to understand the real reasons which cause this behavior. From my point of view it all begins from chilhood of each person and depends on further education. Your article describes the nature of racism very explicitly, thanks for sharing.

g downloads | 5:23 am, January 31, 2013 | Link

 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Membership to the Greater Good

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work
Hillside Club
January 21, 2015


The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

Join the GGSC and Berkeley Arts and Letters for the launch of Christine Carter’s latest book


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child By John Gottman, with Joan Declaire This is a great book for learning how to emotion coach your child, written by a highly regarded researcher.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement