Killing Us Softly: Chronic Stress and the Health of Black Women

Photo by Sarah Whiting

When my grandmother used to tell me about her eldest daughter being murdered in police custody, she would often describe feeling outside of her own body. Shock. Rage. Grief. 

The brutal nature of my 21-year-old aunt’s death in 1977 — she was found naked, beaten, and laying in a pool of her own blood on the floor of an Ohio jail cell — sent my grandmother over the edge. It was not the first time my grandmother had to bury her own child. Unfortunately, it also would not be the last.

In 2013, my grandmother buried a different daughter. My aunt — who had a history of heart disease and high blood pressure (same as my grandmother, same as my other aunts, same as my own mother) — died in her mid-50s while undergoing what was by then a routine surgical procedure on her heart.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for women in the United States is heart disease — 1 in 4. This is especially true for Black women of low-social economic status. For those of us living at the intersection of layered identities, we don’t have to sift through the headlines very long to be reminded of our killers. From police brutality, to the nonsense of white people, to violent men from both outside and within our own communities, the lives of Black women seem to be up for grabs. 

In an article published by the academic journal “Sociological Perspectives,” researchers stated: “While all race-gender subgroups are susceptible to problematic sets of stereotypes, the confluence of representations of black womanhood create a system of oppression that works to silence African-American women, making them vulnerable to sexual violence, discrimination, and sexism in ways that white women are not.”

This is about as shocking as learning that water is wet.

However, there’s a more silent killer impacting the health outcomes of Black women, in ways that should also set off alarm bells. 

In that same article, researchers noted: “For African-American women, racism-related stress may be compounded by experiences of sexism. Like racism, sexism is reflected in individual attitudes, collective ideology, and the structure of social institutions. Chronic and acute stressors associated with sexism are linked to women’s mental and physical health outcomes. Gender discrimination predicts psychological distress, anxiety, anger, obsessive-compulsivity, somatic symptoms, and depression.”

There’s more: “These explanations are consistent with research suggesting that African-American women become more distressed in response to witnessing or experiencing discrimination than African-American men.”

Not only is the racism and sexism of our country killing us, but the stress of these realities are, to paraphrase Adele, setting fire to the rain.

Researchers last year published a study that noted the unhealthy sleep pattern of Black women is related to the plethora of health issues (stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes) that we disproportionally encounter. 

When asked by a reporter from “The Atlantic” to explain these findings, one researcher said, “being a Black female in the United States is inherently more stressful than being just a female or being just Black.”

Last winter, 27-year-old Erica Garner died of a heart attack and I lost my mind. She is the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold by a New York City police officer in 2014. As writer Melissa Harris-Perry aptly put it in an Elle magazine article, it’s the stress of the system that’s killing us.

My grandmother was raised in Chicago and was 14 when Emmett Till, also 14 and of Chicago, was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, by two white men who were later acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. 

My grandmother died in her hospital bed this August after a long and audacious battle fighting a cocktail of chronic health diseases, specifically related to her heart.

I no longer care to know how your hospital, your work culture, your non-profit, your media outlet, your business, your political campaign, your school, your place of worship, your retweets, your one friend claim to “address disparities.” 

Right now, all I care to know is simple. What have you done for the health and wellness of Black women lately?