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Sticks and Stones


Noel O'Hare

Racist abuse can be profoundly damaging to an individual's health.

Some folk wisdom is incredibly stupid. Take the expression "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me". Non-physical abuse, even emotional neglect and indifference, can be profoundly damaging to both psychological and physical health. For example, it's now known that racism can play a key role in the development of illness. Last year, the British Medical Journal, noting the growing body of research showing an association between racism, disease and mortality, argued that "countering racism should be a public health issue".

Overt racism in New Zealand is less common than in many countries, but it does burst to the surface from time to time. Hostility towards the New Zealand Chinese community in the early decades of the 20th century is well documented. When I arrived here in the early 1970s, Pacific Islanders were openly referred to as "coconuts", and overstayers were staked out in dawn raids. Maori, I was given to understand, were lazy and stupid - the reason they hadn't got on despite having equal opportunity. In the mid-1990s, Asian migrants became the target when Winston Peters legitimised racism with his attacks on immigration policy.

Whether he means to or not, Don Brash is pushing the same buttons, and the government has cynically tried to outmanoeuvre him by pandering to the same petty prejudices. In a subversion worthy of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, we now have a Race Relations Minister whose goal is not to promote racial harmony, but to seek out and remove any supposed advantages enjoyed by racial minorities. With the bad smell emanating from the body politic, it's little wonder that the white supremacist National Front is gearing up for the next election. A spokesman told the New Zealand Herald, "The public mode was right for the group's militarist and anti-immigration stance."

So, if the momentum is gathering for another wave of racism, how will it affect the health of minorities? British and American studies on racism and health show that the victims of discrimination were more likely to have a respiratory illness, hypertension, a long-term limiting illness, anxiety, depression and psychosis. One US study found that a one percent increase in incidences of racial disrespect in a US state translated into an increase of 350 deaths per 100,000 black Americans. Harvard School of Public Health researcher Dr Camara Phyllis Jones found that middle-aged African Americans had blood pressure rates similar to white Americans 10 years their senior. She attributes the higher blood pressure to the stress of living in a race-conscious society. "It is something like gunning a car constantly," she says. "The stresses of the levels of racism cause the higher blood pressure."

From surveys she conducted she found that whites rarely think about race during an average day. But 22 percent of blacks surveyed said they constantly think of race, and 50 percent said they think of race at least once a day. "They are constantly reminded of their blackness. That has a profound effect." Jones also conducted research in New Zealand, where she found that Maori tended to have blood pressure levels similar to whites who were five years older.

Other researchers have also found that racism can contribute to hypertension and heart disease. A 13-year longitudinal study found that those who reported the most racist and discriminatory experiences had the most doctor-verified disabilities and health problems. The interesting thing is that racism effects on health are independent of income. Could this help explain, perhaps, health disparities between European and Maori?

According to a Te Puni Kokiri report, "European men and women living in the most deprived areas have longer life expectancies than Maori men and women living in the least deprived areas." The same is true in the US: African Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic minority groups suffer more illness and die younger, regardless of income or social class.

Racism can have a profound effect on mental well-being. One study of ethnic minorities in the UK found that those who had experienced verbal racial abuse were three times more likely to be suffering from depression or psychosis. Those who had experienced a racial attack were nearly three times more likely to be suffering from depression and five times more likely to be suffering from psychosis.

According to another British study, racism may trigger schizophrenia in those who are biologically disposed to it. The British Institute of Psychiatry found that the rate of schizophrenia in non-white ethnic minorities was highest in those areas where this group comprised a small proportion of the population and lowest where they made up a large population.

There may be few racist attacks in New Zealand, but a political climate that encourages resentment towards minorities is an unhealthy one. Subtle racism may not involve sticks and stones or even names, but it still stings. Some researchers believe that everyday minor incidents or slights, what they call "micro-aggressions", and the perception that society is discriminatory may have a greater impact on an individual's health.

Copyright 2004, Used with permission from the New Zealand Listener.

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