How Sexism and Racism Can Be Harmful to Your Health

Sexism and racism are two forms of systemic injustice where people are treated unfairly by a network of social institutions because they belong to a certain social-identity group. For example, much has been written about the gender-pay gap and obstacles to promotion for women in many fields. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised our awareness of the higher rates of incarceration and killing of African Americans by police and the judicial system than is true for Whites. Gender and race are not the only social-identity categories where discrimination occurs, of course. Let’s take a look at some recent studies on how sexism and racism can be harmful to our health. (Be aware that these findings probably apply to other marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQIA community, as well.) One example of sexism is the barrier for women in certain fields, such as engineering and construction, that reduce the number of women in these professions. Jenny Kutner reports that a new study by researchers at Indiana University found that token women—defined as having 15 percent or fewer female colleagues in male-dominated industries—experienced “abnormally high stress levels.” Specifically, the researchers found that being exposed to stressors such as lower pay, isolation and invisibility, obstacles to promotion, and sexual harassment causes “irregular patterns of cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress.” Token women, the researchers explain, “exhibit more unhealthy cortisol fluctuations throughout the day than do their male counterparts or women who worked in offices with a more balanced gender ration.” Kutner notes that the fluctuating cortisol levels of the token women in the study are the same sort of hormone irregularity associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and can have lasting repercussions on health and well-being. Another example of sexism is the objectification of women and girls that can begin in adolescence or earlier and continue through adulthood. Objectification includes (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Leering by men who may be colleagues, acquaintances, or strangers
  • Catcalls of a sexual nature on the street from strangers
  • Groping and flashing by men that can start when girls are quite young
  • Online sexual harassment
Jessica Valenti of the New York Times reports on research showing that these examples of “the ways women and girls are looked at and dehumanized” affect their mental health, sense of self, and sense of safety. Acts of objectification are microaggressions—small moments of being diminished or demeaned—that add up. These are not to be confused with macroaggressions like rape and other forms of sexual violence, but nonetheless they are harmful in the long run for girls and women. The psychological toll of racism and the resulting daily cost of micro- and macroaggression is an old story for black people in our country. Jenna Wortham writes that the killings of black women and men by police officers recorded on cameras and made public—including the recent killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, and Korryn Gaines—have produced “rage and mourning and angst that . . . eats you alive with its relentlessness . . . and leaves you feeling helpless.” She explains that the resulting traumatic stress response for many African Americans makes them physically sick with rashes, depression, insomnia, and emotional exhaustion. As a white person, I’ve been upset by these killings and incarceration rates, but I realize that I do not feel the same fear and trauma as my African American friends and colleagues—I do not think the police are going to arrest me or shoot me because of the color of my skin, which is a reality for them. What can we do? One thing that matters a lot is to listen to each other to understand the impact of racism and sexism—men can listen to women, whites can listen to people of color—and take whatever action we can together to change the systems that damage our health and our lives. It will take all of us to change these deeply rooted systems. Do you have stories of people from different social backgrounds coming together to address systemic injustice? If so, please let me know in the comments.   The image in this post is courtesy of businessforward (CC BY-SA 2.0).    ]]>