The Costs of Racism for Black Women: The Concept of Weathering

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.   Photo courtesy of James Palinsad (CC BY-SA 2.0)]]>

6 thoughts on “The Costs of Racism for Black Women: The Concept of Weathering”

  1. I always enjoy your column, Anne. This one stopped me dead in my tracks. I’m shocked at the studies but believe you are onto something.
    What suggestions do you have for equipping up-and-coming African American business-oriented women with tools for combating the high levels of physical stress?

  2. Thank you for this, Anne. It is heart-breaking. And enraging.
    And of course it isn’t just stereotypes we need to fight against – it is a whole system, a whole set of systems, that cause the constant pressure, the consistent press of racism, and make it simply much harder and more painful to be a person of color, and a woman, in our society. It is a toxic stew.
    I admit it – I have saved that edition of the Times magazine section because I was terrified to read it. An easy choice for me. Our sisters of color never get to choose “I’ll do it when I feel stronger.” It’s a constant process of being broken down, one that even the strongest Black women must eventually be damaged by.
    I am sorry for this rant – it is so painful to just *read* this, and know I am complicit in a range of ways. I want to recommit to working to change this reality.

    • Dear Jeanette:
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is extremely painful to have to face this reality for our black sisters as white women. It’s enraging. And I agree that it is easy to look the other way — but glad you are not doing so.

  3. Thank you for this provocative blog, Anne. It is hard to explain marginalization when it is unique to a particular group. Your bravery and compassion are appreciated.

  4. As woman of color, “speaking from the margins” I am always conscious of and constantly assessing my appearance, my clothing, my non-verbal and verbal communication. As soon as I leave my home heading for work, I’m in self-surveillance mode. It is exhausting to have to micro-manage your behavior because of the the numerous amount of negative media depictions of “women of color”.
    It is exhausting having watch every verbal and non-verbal aspect of yourself. You are always monitoring what you say. I’ve noticed that white peers can say the same sentence using a nasty tone, or raise their voice and I can be as nice as pie and hear “I was intimidated because you look me right in the eye when you speak”. You have such a large vocabulary, you need to bring it down a notch. And last but not least “you speak so eloquently and write very well. But, no matter how insensitive or painful the questions, I smile and answer using a self-scrutinizing tone, volume, and inflections in what is my true self.
    W.E.B. DuBois wrote” One feels his two-ness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it form being torn asunder”. It is uncanny that the presence of my two-ness follows me like a shadow from which I can never escape.

  5. I am living the impacts this article describes. One of the key ways that white women participate in this toxic stew is thru interracial dating. They seek out the top earners and most eligible men in our community, marry and divorce them.
    Between the men who are imprisoned and those who are left behind by the system of education there are so few partners left for those bjack women who want to have a black family and extend our cultural values. Having to face so much alone is why I believe the impacts described today are worse now than during the 1850s.
    Also negative stereotypes of black women in the media are very damaging. We are portrayed as loud, ignorant, sassy despite the fact that black women are very entrepreneurial and open and operate small businesses more than many groups in America. We are idea people struggling to succeed in an environment that denies our capacity to lead or even think. It is also quite damaging to have to dumb down who we are to fit into the limited expectations of people.
    Our role as the purveyors of our culture through our children, families and as social innovators is being systematically destroyed and society is saying good riddance. There is a lot of concern about black men but a great effort by our society to separate us from our men who we birthed, who are our children, brothers, fathers and should be husbands.
    From the demand of a welfare system that for generations has demanded that men NOT be in the home as a requirement of funding to the appropriation of our hips, lips, language and song while rejecting us is damaging. We paid the price but white women are the greatest beneficiaries of the civil rights movement yet they were the deciding votes that ushered in the hegemony of Donald Trump whose racism targets our children and families.
    White women can help by being real about the way they contribute and benefit from our suppression and being aware of that damage.


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