Blackness, Fear and Health
By: Hazael Ajayi, Master of Biomedical Sciences Candidate 2014, Tufts University School of Medicine
You heard of driving while black but have you heard of exercising while black? You can run, but you cannot hide from how the awareness of blackness can have an impact on health. A few weeks ago, a University of Maryland sociologist, Rashawn Ray reported that Black men are afraid of exercising due to fear of being racially profiled. Physical activity has its benefits on reducing risks for onset of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer which are more prevalent in African Americans than in the national population and are also commonly associated with obesity. For those who enjoy outdoor physical activity or use it as an affordable alternative instead of a paying for a gym membership, to be black and outside is to be perceived by prejudiced minds with heightened suspicion.
According to the Ray’s study, 50% of African Americans are not physically active. However, despite this and other saddening statistics concerning the health of the African American population in the US, an effort to alter health outcomes and prolong life expectancy by changing lifestyle habits has come to a halt for some, out of fear for their own lives. There are a lot of negative connotations associated with being black from high mortality rates due to violence in predominantly African American communities to failing school districts entrusted to prepare young children of color with quality education for a solid future. We observe education, class, opportunity, ethnic background, and neighborhoods as social determinants of health that attribute to health disparities, but fail to recognize the impact of racial profiling as one as well. In Ray’s study, he explained that Black men will make all attempts to appear non-threatening, such as wear collegiate athletic gear, wave and smile, and avoid dimly lit areas. It is the implicit bias towards African-American males that has boxed them into categories such as violent or poor decision makers prior to even being given a chance to display their actions. Recent incidents such as the slain FAMU alum, Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot while looking for help after surviving a car accident or the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin are examples of this. Lately, the less deadly, yet highly humiliating arrest of Trayon Christian, wrongly accused of stealing a belt from the high-end retail store Barneys as a result of being prejudged and profiled. As Dr. Marc Lamont Hill so eloquently put it, “we have this history of seeing black male bodies as dangerous and threatening and always worthy of lethal force, we never can see them as victims of violence.” They are indeed victims of violence as much as they are victims of fear; foregoing physical outdoor activity as a result of fear of being targeted which can be detrimental to overall health and cause other problems, especially for lower income individuals that rely on outdoor activity. These negative perceptions surrounding black males creates their voluntary visible absence from communities; it strikes a message to non- people of color that their neighborhood is indicative of being a safe community, while coincidentally it negatively impacts the perception of the black family and social structure.
In addition to black bodies being profiled, the environmental surroundings can influence the decision of being physically active outdoors. As a long time New Yorker, I’ve come to notice that even public facilities and scenery vary depending on the demographics of the community. Within the boroughs, in predominantly African-American communities in parts of Brooklyn or Manhattan, you’re more likely to find a basketball court; in Hispanic and Latino communities in Brooklyn or Bronx more than likely to find a baseball field, and in affluent neighborhoods, the presence of a lush green park with tennis courts abound. Unfortunately this type of poor urban planning fails to recognize that there is a need for providing its local residents with options to various athletic facilities that are accessible. Such urban design should not center its development of park facilities to be acceptable when based off of limited knowledge of a group of people using stereotypes especially when preferences and ideas within a group are not the same. In addition, there are disparities in the upkeep of local area parks and air quality that are not always conducive to incorporate a culture that motivates and promotes residents to get active. I admit, it is indeed quite rare to see people jogging on concrete sidewalks for blocks and blocks but in the beautiful parks it is normative to do so, which inspires others to muster up the courage to do the same.
Now how does this affect African American women and other women of color? I have a father, uncles, brothers, young nephews, cousins and friends that I worry about and I am sure many of the readers have loved ones they worry about as well. And it concerns me that even the youngest of them are taught about what their blackness means to the world, that they lack the privilege of knowing what life is like not being a target or a scapegoat and must always be ready to defend their name appropriately. Studies have been conducted showing that women are more empathetic than men and therefore worry more. Worrying can increase stress levels affecting blood pressure and mental health and wellness. Sometimes in an effort to prove how strong we are as women we neglect to take time to care for our mental health and wellbeing. Delaying adequate care because of stigma or embarrassment from appearing weak when we acknowledge that we are overburdened is dangerous as well. In fact, physical activity, getting fresh air or meditation all help to alleviate symptoms of stress and bring about clarity. So instead of addressing African Americans as a poor statistic, discussing health outcomes and lifestyle choices needs to include a discussion about the societal implications of black life in America such as investigating accessibility to resources that are readily available to other groups of people to help tackle issues plaguing the African American community. Furthermore there are people who have the luxury of having access to resources such as being able to afford healthy and organic options of food rather than consuming cheap and quick meals. Because of the underlying cycle of poverty, foods packed with growth hormones and dangerous chemicals pumped into them are favored for consumption in lower income areas because of the inexpensive price which unfortunately has adverse health effects.
Scientists and healthcare providers have used genetics to classify certain conditions that racial and ethnic groups are at risk for the most. But I always pondered, that how is it the rest of the African Diaspora outside of the US, especially in developing nations does not suffer as greatly from the earlier mentioned chronic conditions and their subsequent complications? If it is just greatly deduced as being simply black as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or cancer when lifestyle choices are controlled, why does the prevalence rate vary among the diaspora? I do feel strongly that black life in America and living under the tense burden of being profiled or worrying about the safety of someone you care about being subjected to racial prejudiced actions can manifest itself in unhealthy ways in the form of mismanaging stress, hypertension, and emotions. The daily challenges of living life, a black life in America adds a dimensional impact to how one observes social determinants of health. The freedom of being visible in our communities and the option of enjoying the outdoors is a right and not a luxury; it is one part our lives that we can control as it pertains to the investment of our health and should not be lost.
Written in response to Rashawn Ray’s finding posted in :
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