Why Black Women Can’t Breathe

Justice For All Rally, Washington DC, December 13, 2014, (Stephen Melkisethian, Flikr).

Eric Garner’s gasp “I can’t breathe” in the chokehold of a New York City Police Department officer transformed into a modern chant for racial justice. These same words, we are learning, might also be Black women’s silent invocation of constricting structural oppression. I am late to the 2014 research findings that suggest Garner’s stranglehold is asthma in Black women.

Publishing their findings the same year as Garner’s death, researchers found a positive association between the physiological response of chronic stress from racism and the incidence of adult-onset asthma in Black women. Using data (1997–2011) from Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), the investigation compared the data of everyday racisms, such as poor service in stores, and lifetime racism on the job, with police, and in housing, with the occurrence of asthma in Black women. The greater the incidences of racism, the higher the rate of asthma. Although the “stress pathways” between racism and adverse health outcomes, such as asthma, are yet to be fully understood, the theory is that stress induced from the social world affects the immune and autonomic nervous systems. In turn this increases narrowing and inflammation of the airways thereby contributing to the development of asthma. That racism suffocates Black women is now an empirically-supported working hypothesis deserving of greater annunciation. It offers a new vantage on the nature of Black women’s specific obstructions.

After years of deficit theories defining Black people’s problems as uniquely of their own making, the aforementioned study presents a distinct counterclaim, supported by the racial health disparities literature that emphasizes socio-environmental conditions including residential segregation and poverty as primary health determinants. The racial health disparities literature connects diseases like asthma, which Black people are more likely to die from than their white counterparts, as linked to environmental factors such as dilapidated housing and exposure to pollution, as well as a host of human factors ranging from obesity, smoking, sedentariness, to hormone supplements. Similarly human stress, measured as allostatic load from community violence, intimate partner violence, and child abuse are also associated with adult-onset asthma, and other physical conditions in Black women such as hypertension (high blood pressure), preterm birth, and sleep disturbances. There are also genetic investigations of the disproportionate rates of asthma in Black and other people of color and its possible treatment. The ramifications of racialization have created a convoluted conversation about how to speak about and address Black health needs without re-inscribing pernicious biological notions of race. If only semantic, the 2014 study on Black women’s asthma intervened by indicating that racism, not race, demarcates bodies, and that human care, not just medical care, plays a crucial role in promoting Black vitality.

Racial trauma is increasingly recognized and studied by the fields of psychiatry and psychology, and as we observe in epidemiology and even epigenetics. In 2000, the U.S. Surgeon General acknowledged that racism likely accounts for racial and ethnic health disparities. The American Psychologist’s first issue of 2019 is dedicated to racial trauma. Slowly, sectors of the scientific literature are corroborating what the literary and social theorists have long invoked, for example, through the idea of blood memory: that Black people’s bodies course with their exposure to hostile worlds.

What compels me about these findings on Black women’s asthma is the unprecedented ways it allows us to witness, palpate, and discern how racial oppression inhabits Black women in particular. My explorations of how Black women metaphorically can’t breathe now find literality. This revelation feels important. We already have piercing visuals of Black men’s abrupt destruction from police shooting-deaths and the soul-cutting stares that enshroud Black men’s public movement. Other manifestations remain untold. What this study conveys is how racism is lived and experienced by Black women whose knocks, marginalization, and subjugation appear less palpable by comparison to those of Black men; at the same time, it proposes new anglesfor clarifying the gendered dimensions of racisms’ expression in all bodies.

These textures invite us into how Black women live racism—a meditation that came bittersweetly into form in Hafizah Geter’s recent essay on intergenerational racial trauma. Geter plunges us into the devastations of U.S. racism through a poetic disclosure of the haunts of her Black American father’s family. She narrates us through how the torment of racism has been passed from generation to generation, often from man to woman, and woman to girl, all without the dominant white world’s seeming notice, sorrow or apology. In witnessing this unsown wound, she writes, “Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.”

Geter’s reflections do not end there. Her emotional excavations frankly expose how racism catalyzed the viciousness of some of the men in her family to turn their resentment-filled rage on the women in her paternal family, girl and peer alike. Yet her descriptions of a family world turned predatory do not revolve around her encounters with unrestrained men, but are proffered around the distress she endured from a tormented aunt. Geter writes, “My Aunt Sarah’s disgust for me is the first secret my body ever kept.” Aunt Sarah was a psychic and verbal abuser, and Geter, as the unexplained source of her aunt’s ire, explores the mixture of anger and disgust that decayed Sarah’s kindness. With a mind to understanding more than blaming, Geter recognizes Sarah’s corrosion as inflamed by the indignations and brutality of the oppressive racial and gendered social world of her “Black, Black life.” And with these same eyes, she perceives her aunt’s singular veiled act of compassion to keep her safe from the specific ravishes of ossified anger in the form of male abuse.

Geter’s essay and what she drafts as the living emotional legacy of racism transmits the feelings and imagery of Black women’s chronic stress, an etiology for manifestations such as asthma. She ethnographically risks drawing attention to the compounded effects of gendered racism in the everyday and long term—to use the scientific language—how it permeates Black life from the outside eroding bodies and how they love. Geter illustrates how Black women in her family, much like Black trans and queer folks in mainstream society, are “bequeathed” shame. Post-Moynihan, scholars have struggled to find the theory and breath of language that does not reproduce deficiency or pathological models of Black life while attempting to make sense of the hardship. Such efforts take on even greater risk when attending to illness and disease whose conceptualization begins in the body. Like the research on asthma, Geter’s work situates Black women’s constrictionsin the ongoing matrix of anti-Black racism at the same time that it charts and makes more palpable the stress pathways between the social world and the breathlessness of Black women.

The marked progression in the literature of racial health disparities and trauma produced by our academic cousins in the medical sciences gives dimension to the humanities scholarship, merging biochemistry with statistics and metaphors. A more recent 2017 study that Black children, like Black women, suffer from racial stress- induced asthma adds even greater depth. This growing work brings Black women’s bodies into felt form and recognizable as archives of the acute ills and imbalances of the social world. It makes evident that illnesses like asthma are not only socially related but distinctly racialized and gendered. It invites a generational framework for understanding medical predispositions as social not just biological. It also clarifies that a softer, less oppressive world might heal more than an inhaler.

Racial healing has provided a companion term and therapeutic approach to racial trauma. On January 22nd, the 2019 National Day of Racial Healing, curated by the Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay, illustrated this turn by creating a platform and space dedicated to the heavy aches of a persistently racist world. When it comes to asthma, racial healing may require swifter palliative measures. Our bodies tell a more complex story than the words racism and patriarchy immediately communicate. In times when funding is being cut and racist intent is buried in rhetoric that makes it more challenging to directly confront and expose, these studies play an important part in our thinking about how to sustain a conversation, diverse in nature, on the pressures of Black life as a whole and the transformations required for our well being.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Comments on “Why Black Women Can’t Breathe

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    Very interesting article! It makes a lot of sense to me as the mind and body are connected. I highly recommend books by Thich Ninh Hanh. He’s Vietnamese, and a Buddhist monk, but his writings are universal and delve quite deeply into the connection between mind and body.

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