By Elizabeth Page-Gould, Greater Good
Posted on August 11, 2010,
Printed on August 12, 2010
Note: 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, Greater Good featured 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.
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. threatThe 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.