Racism is nasty, evil, and insidious. It’s something to watch for, not only in writing, but in life.
But as writers we need to go one step beyond and actually think about how racism affects our characters. Here’s a side-effect I’d never thought of before. It turns out that dealing with racism can increase risk-factors for illness.
Controlling for other factors that might cause stress, including socioeconomic status, health behaviors, and depression, researchers found that adults who had reported higher levels of discrimination when they were young had disrupted stress hormone levels 20 years later—and that African Americans experienced the effects at greater levels than their white counterparts.
“There’s sometimes a tendency to say, ‘Oh, they are just kids—they will get over it,'” says developmental psychologist and head researcher Emma Adam. “But it turns out there can be lasting impact.”
Using participants from the Maryland Adolescent Development Context Study—a large-scale, 20-year survey that included adolescents from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds—the researchers were able to compare levels of the stress hormone cortisol in adults to the responses they gave as 12-year-olds.
You can read the full Mother Jones article here.
What this generally means, is that the levels of stress hormones remain elevated in those who experience racism. High hormone levels can lead to heart disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue, and depression. So, let’s think about this in a regular fiction way and then in a science fiction way.
In regular fiction, you have a character who is from an historically minority background who has grown up with racism (overt or insidious). They are now an adult. This adult is now put into a stressful situation. His heart is weaker, having had high stress levels on a continual basis for most of his life. How does he react? More quickly? More slowly? Does he suddenly have a tingling in his hand and shortness of breath that he writes off as the normal background of his life, rather than the mild heart attack it is?
In a science fiction way, we have a minority character — an alien. How does this alien’s physiology react to long-grade stress? Does it change the color of the alien’s skin (<– playing with race to fit in with the dominant culture. Adaptive physiology?) Does it make the alien sick? Aggressive? Passive?
Or, if we put humans under the dominant alien culture. Humans have to work twice as hard to been seen as good as the dominant species. How does this affect the rates of exhaustion? Do they age more rapidly? Die more easily?
What are your thoughts/reactions?