What About Race and Chronic Illness?

Jan 21, 2020

I’m the only white kid in my family.  Understand, me saying that does not give me some kind of get-out-of-racism-free card, just a different lens on growing up white than the one you may have had.  Being the youngest in a family with two brown siblings made aware of my whiteness earlier than some.  It made my whiteness overt; which, for most white people, it isn’t.  That’s part of what privilege is – the invisibility of the advantages our skin color confers.  If you had the ability to see it, it wouldn’t be so insidious, so pernicious and hard to acknowledge.  It is, by definition, unseen and unconscious advantage based on skin color.  White privilege means I can trust I won’t be followed when I’m walking around a store, that band aids will match my skin tone, and that I am not afraid for my safety when I get pulled over by the cops.  It means I get a higher wage, preferential treatment, and assumed competence, among other things.  But the thing I want to draw attention to today is how it impacts illness.

The stress-disease connection has been well documented.  Many of us had the start of our diseases during a time of stress in our lives.  Perhaps it was an accident, illness, or injury that triggered our chronic illness, or maybe we were going through a difficult time in our life like a job transition or divorce.  Stress can ignite disease in the body.  My rheumatologist says that many autoimmune diseases have a genetic predisposition but take a triggering event for the disease to be initiated.  Even if you aren’t someone whose disease started began with a stressful event, stress exacerbates our illnesses.  Every doctor’s advice about chronic illness begins with “reduce the stress in your life.”  Stress is like gasoline on the fire of chronic disease. 

So, with that as the context, consider the impact of race on chronic illness.  Consider the impact that the daily stress racism and oppression puts on black and brown bodies.  In 2013, The National Institutes of Health reported that people of color were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have a chronic illness than their white counterparts.  One and a half to two times – that is a stark and shocking number.  The impact of race on health has been studied and well documented over the years and the data is bleak.  From lower quality of health care, to increased mortality rates, minorities are overlooked in our systems, have less access, and worse health outcomes.  And is it any wonder?  When navigating a society that “abolished” slavery but perpetuated systems, attitudes, and structures that have continued to disadvantage people of color, the burden of stress they carry is disproportionate to their white counterparts.

It’s likely if you don’t agree with me that you have stopped reading by now.  If you have hung in, perhaps you’ve already done work in this area.  To those of you still here, I urge you to press on.  The disenfranchised, in any society, do not become empowered by deciding that they want to become empowered.  It happens because those in power decide to share.  Women did not get the right to vote because they suddenly decided that they wanted it.  They got the right to vote because enough men – enough husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons finally decided that women could have the right to vote.  The same principle holds for every other “ism” in our society.  We don’t overcome this by ignoring it.  Black and brown folks will not gain equality by deciding they want it – if that were true, they would have had it long ago.  It happens when enough of us in the majority begin to make change.

I know this is problematic on many levels.  For those of us who are white, we were likely raised to think it is impolite to talk about race.  Well, this isn’t serving us, and it is time to push through our discomfort.  Our non-white counterparts don’t have the luxury of not talking about race.  Racist things are happening to them every day and in order to keep their children safe they must talk about race – in the car, on the walk home, at the dinner table, all the time.  It is time for us white folks to do learn how to do the same.  We must increase our skill, comfort, and knowledge by educating ourselves about issues of power and privilege and initiate conversations about those subjects all the time.  Yes, it is awkward.  Yes, it is uncomfortable; but it is also overdue.  Until we start to change our patterns of behavior, there is no hope for statistics like the one about disease and race to change.

It begins with us.  As we pass another Martin Luther King Junior day and we think about what it means for us personally, or what it means for us with chronic illness, here is something it can mean and there are things we can DO.  We can learn about our privilege.  We can initiate uncomfortable conversations.  We can begin to become allies or continue to become better allies.  We can make room for voices that are historically unheard or disenfranchised.  We can question our assumptions.  We can change our reading materials/things we watch/what we listen to to reflect a more diverse and broad set of perspectives.  And this is just a start.  What change are you committed to making?

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