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How to Survive the Stress in Still Being Black in America

Recognizing Race-Based and Racism-Related Stress in 21st Century America and Strategies for Active Coping

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Racism is not over. “This system of Whites as dominant and people of color as subordinated” that we all, as Americans, live in “has become so ingrained in our society that it is virtually invisible,” explained Sheri Schmidt,” but it certainly exists. Racism creates events and experiences that are uniquely negative, ambiguous, unpredictable, and uncontrollable for its victims. Hence, “racism is stressful.” Moreover, to quote Nia Heard-Garris, “racism is a pervasive stressor.” Racism is a normative experience for people in color in this country and, therefore, a pervasive stressor. Contemporary racism can be experienced as systemic, individual, institutional, cultural, unconscious, aversive, everyday, anticipated, perceived, internalized, or microevents, which radically increases the probability and regularity of experiencing it in some form as a stressor (i.e., causes racism-related stress).

“Being Black in a racist society is stressful,” noted Danielle Williams. Existing in a “social environment in which Black Americans bear the stigma burden of their racial group while White Americans are allowed to view themselves as individuals” is stressful, explained Margaret Hicken et al. Having to deal with, possibly to some degree on a daily basis, the negative assumptions and expectations now associated with being Black in America is stressful. Enduring “unequal life experiences and chances based on the socially constructed racial group membership categories” being “woven into our social structure and institutions” is stressful.  

Being Black in America makes us uniquely, highly, and constantly vulnerable to experiencing race-based stress. Race-based stress describes a particular response to personally relevant encounters, events, evaluations, expectations, and experiences most likely to be negative and/or negating (i.e., dangerous, difficult, dehumanizing, or disappointing) primarily, but oftentimes ambiguously, because we are Black in America. Our response typically lacks the resources and capacity to effectively deal with (i.e., reduce, minimize, stop, or tolerate) the negativity and/or negation caused by these race-based encounters, events, evaluations, or experiences, which makes it stressful.

Conversely, racism-related stress is stress specifically triggered by experiencing some form of racism or racist behavior, inclusive of any act of racial discrimination, hostility, violence, exclusion, inequality, or injustice perceived or experienced as somehow threatening. “Racism embedded in American society and enacted by individuals, institutions, and systems can act as a chronic or life event stressor for Blacks,” concluded Deidre Franklin-Jackson and Robert Carter.

Chronic stress “over time, can cause damage that leads to premature death,” noted Patricia Celan. Any type of stress causes the release of cortisol, a hormone designed to enable the brain to elevate blood sugar and pressure levels in order to enhance our ability to respond to danger. However, with chronic stress there is so much cortisol constantly being produced that it becomes toxic and creates a significantly higher risk of serious health issues including stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and cancer.”  

Apparently, Steven Kniffley was terribly accurate in concluding that the “stress of being Black is literally killing us.” However, it doesn’t have to continue killing us. We could live healthier, longer if we had less of this stress in our lives. That’s why practicing proactive stress-reducing interventions and evidence-informed coping strategies is so important, as opposed to simply maintaining a victim mentality in which we choose tolerating over preventing our own demise.