Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Race and Well-Being

How much of an impact does racism have on a person's health? An excellent question which I have not considered yet but a group of researchers attempts to answer. In Race and Well-Being: The Lives, Hopes, and Activism of African Canadians, Akua Benjamin, David Este, Carl James, Bethan Lloyd, Wanda Thomas Bernard, and Tana Turner conduct studies of Canadians of African descent in three cities-- Halifax, Toronto, and Calgary. Each city is quite distinct in its population and size. Located in the Maritimes, Halifax is small city on the nation's east coast with a small percentage of visible minorities and largely Black Canadian (at least 3 generations in this country). Toronto is a large city with a predominantly Caribbean first- and second-generation population. Finally, Calgary is a mid-sized city with most of its African Canadians coming directly from the continent of Africa as students, working professionals, and refugees. Each of these groups of African Canadians is quite distinct but similarly they share experiences in Canada are as a racialized community in this country. Since those who immigrated from the Caribbean and Africa, came from countries in which they were not a visible minority and instead a majority, arrival in Canada has presented new challenges including racial stereotyping and racism in employment, education, housing, and media.

What drew me to this book was to find out if indeed there were links between the experience of racism and disease or illness? The answer is "yes", there do appear to be some links but this study shows them in very general ways, more so in general physical, psychological, mental, and emotional. A limitation of this study was that there were no specific diseases linked directly to racism. However, the participants surveyed in the study indicate that racial incidents cause tremendous stress and produce destructive effects on such factors as the family structures, self-esteem, relationships, career advancement, and economic productivity. Black-on-black violence is also discussed as a form of internalized racism which has devastating effects.

Race and Well-Being helped me to critically evaluate my own personal experiences with racism in Canada and evaluate them with a new lens. In some of these incidents, I was quite aware that they were prompted by racism. One example was when I had been stopped by police for "j walking" in Edmonton at night. This was scary since I was alone in a new city, touring my film festival, where I did not know anyone close. There were two police officers in a cruiser that slowed down beside me as I walked on the sidewalk. One asked me to show my identification which I did not have on me at the time (it was in the hotel). I knew this was a racialized incident since the large group of white youth who "j-walked" just before I did were not stopped. Plus, I have never heard of anyone stopped for "j walking" in Toronto, where I'm from. (I had "j walked" several times without worry. When I told the officer this, he laughed and said he had been to Toronto many times so he knows how things operate there. Jerk!) Then there was an incident when I was in the bus terminal in Calgary walking with a cart which contained my luggage and boxes (again full of films that I toured across Canada). A plain-clothes "officer" asked to see my identification and bus ticket. Aside from these two incidents, I have never been stopped "out of the blue" by police officers. However, both incidents took place in the same province, Alberta, in cities that are a few hours apart. Then there are the very blatantly obvious incidents of being called the n-word in elementary school, having eggs and objects thrown at my childhood home when we moved into a new neighbourhood, the children who said they could not be my friend because "I am Black", and the Grade 4 teacher who never picked me or dealt with a situation where I was constantly being called racist names and teasing by a classmate. I must admit that now as an adult, racial incidents such as these are much rarer but they often do occur on a more subtle level. I wonder now how these incidents may have impacted me since my childhood. Are they related to anxiety and depression that I have experienced in different periods of my life? Isolation in the school yard and not making friends in school? Feelings of insecurity? Feeling unattractive? "Diving" into books and academics instead of socializing?

Then there are other incidents that I look at with a renewed suspicion since it is sometimes challenging to know whether or not an incident was "racist". The secretary of the English department at the university told me, "She doesn't like Jamaicans," regarding a woman had spat on her. Was it the woman she didn't like or ALL Jamaicans (including myself)? And what events took place that would cause the Jamaican woman to spit on her? When my university professor wrote in my reflection journal that "he was not sure how I would fit in since I was so different" in my music class where I was the only person of colour. Was he being racist, prejudice, or just ignorant? Or when my English high school teacher asked me why Black boys were not succeeding in high school? Why was I at 18 being asked to be a spokesperson for my race? These were stressful situations but I have never considered the stress or impact such repeated incidents may have.

The challenge in Canada is that race-based stats are not kept on African-Canadians so we look to the US for health information about African-Americans. There are several differences between Blacks in both Canada and the US, for example Canadians tend to have hyphenated identities, e.g. Jamaican-Canadian, Ghanaian-Canadian which emphasizes first the country of origin first. Plus the Black population of Canada is largely immigrant and first- and second-generation while in the US it is largely indigenous. However there are some similarities between the groups in each country which include a history of enslavement, systemic exclusion, civil rights, segregation, racism, and restrictive immigration practices. Also, in the early years, talking 18th to early 20th centuries, most of the African migrants (escaped slaves, Black loyalists, settlers, etc.) to Canada came from the US. So what do the American statistics say? African-Americans are more likely to die from breast and prostate cancers than their White counterparts with the same diseases. In both Canada and the US, all non-White groups have increased rates of Type II diabetes. In Canada, this poses an increased challenge for medical care providers since they have only begun to recently provide health and dietary information that is more culturally specific. For example, a question like, 'How many fried dumplings, green bananas, and plantains can be consumed healthily?' would never been addressed for diabetic patients. So it's nice to know that we are moving toward more representative diets.

In my Sistah Vegan post, I mentioned Dick Gregory who is an African-American comedian, vegan, civil rights activist, and writer. I have listened to a few of his interviews on youtube and he provides excellent examples of how race, food issues, and health intersect to produce unhealthy conditions for African-Americans. He also frequently alludes to the US health care system not being set up to benefit Blacks. As I mentioned, I have a lot of relatives who are health care providers (i.e., anesthetic nurse, cytotechnologist, general nurses, osteopathic doctors, pharmacist, surgery, psychiatrics, pharmacist, physician assistant) in the US. It would be very interesting to get their views about being Black and a medical practitioner within this system.

Here is a sample of his thoughts:

How are these conditions similar or different to those in Canada? I am sure the First Nations peoples may find connections with their experiences as well.

The impact of racism on ones' being may take the form of increased depression and mental illness, substance abuse, and other ailments. The writers of the book have indicated the need for the World Health Organization (WHO) to include racism in one of the barriers to the social determinants of health in reference to the boundaries around access to resources, information, and health care race can produce.

Published in 2011, I am so excited to see such a recent example of written work that is pertinent to my experience as a Black Canadian. A book focused on the health of African-Canadians has many applications in service delivery and program development. For years, there have been books about gender and socioeconomic differences when it comes to healthcare. So I think it is long overdue to have a study that examines the differences of how racialized people experience health in Canada. As much as my gender, my race fundamentally affects the way in which I relate to and experience my world. Further study can look at how these and other factors intersect in one's well-being. Long overdue.

In the final chapter, the authors list ways in which the Black participants in the study have coped with racism: spiritual involvement (whether it be through church or mosque), community, activism, family, and education. Each of these means have sustained the participants but have had their own limitations as well. I feel very "hopeful" as I read about a philosophy I have become familiar with over the years with Paolo Freire's "pedagogy of hope" for oppressed peoples. By understanding one's history and condition, there are excellent opportunities for growth, hope, and creating a new reality. In addition, by building bridges with other peoples of colour, stronger alliances and networks are made to create positive change.

Coming Up Next: The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place by Hill Harper

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