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Children and racism: the long-term impact

on health
Recent research, published in the
American Journal of Public Health,
paints a stark picture of the impact of
racial discrimination on a person's
health. Dr. Gilbert Gee and his team at
UCLA have developed a model
that connects racism and long-term
health differences over the course of a
person's lifetime.

Impact of discrimination on health during life span

One of the main observations from the study is that repeated exposure to
moderate racial discrimination can cause illness after a while. A person's
health can also be affected by various social systems such as education, the
criminal justice system, and the labour market. Dr. Gee and his team propose
that racism leads to housing and school segregation, which limits a person's
social network and, eventually, their employment opportunities and health. A
person who is subjected to racism over their lifetime has longer periods of
unemployment or under-employment, incarceration, and/or illness. In turn
they have a shorter career and retirement period and eventually a shorter life
expectancy compared to someone who has not experienced racism.

There are also health impacts for those who migrate to a new country. While
newly arrived immigrants reportedly have better health than non-immigrants
in North America, their health declines with increased length of stay in the
host country. Previous studies attributed this decline to the process of
adapting to a new culture, in this case the sedentary North American lifestyle
and increased intake of fatty food. But new evidence suggests it may be due
to racism.

Long-term health impact can begin in early childhood

The earliest research on children's ability to racially discriminate dates back to
1939. Since then, many researchers have studied children's racially-based
behaviour and its impact.

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Research done by Ausdale and Feagin in 2001 suggests children as young

as three are able to tell racial differences and discriminate against one
another based on race. It also suggests that early childhood may be a crucial
sensitive period when stressors such as racial discrimination affect a person's
long-term well-being. These stressors affect how the young brain develops
and forms neural connections between different regions.

Previous research also suggests that when older children, who have
developed cognitive skills, are exposed to racial discrimination, they may
perceive their own ethnic group negatively, become self-conscious, and
develop low self-esteem and symptoms of depression. For example, a black
youth's initial experience of racial hassles can predict their increased negative
emotions and interactions with youth engaged in deviant behaviour at a later

How identity can buffer the effects of discrimination on health

Although racially-motivated behaviour remains a factor in people's
lives, certain factors can limit its impact. A large scale study by Dr. Krysia
Mossakowski at Indiana University looked at the link between ethnic identity
and mental health among Filipino Americans. She found that the more
strongly a person identified with one's own ethnic group, the less likely they
were to display symptoms of depression. In this study, a stronger sense of
ethnic identity meant having a sense of ethnic pride, being involved in ethnic
or cultural practices, and having knowledge about and commitment to the
ethnic group. The study concluded that ethnic identity not only
directly protects individuals from discrimination but also buffers the stress of
discrimination on mental health.

Role of parents in limiting effects of discrimination

A study from Howard University in Washington DC points out that parents'
responses to their own experiences of racial discrimination may influence
their parenting behaviour and how they teach their children to successfully
negotiate racism.

When a parent suffers greater racial discrimination, they may:

become less sensitive to a child's needs

be less able to provide a warm and supportive environment or display
fail to talk to children about racial or ethnic issues or prepare them to
cope with discrimination
use harsh discipline or be more irritable at home

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Research shows that communicating to children about discrimination is

important for their health and development. In addition, nurturing a strong
ethnic identity in children can boost their resilience and protect them from the
negative health consequences caused by discrimination.

Nurturing and non-harsh parenting promotes self-esteem, self-efficacy,

mastery, and well-being across all races and ethnicities. Parents who actively
respond to racial discrimination report less anxiety and depression in their
pre-school children.

Ling Na

Bilingual Medical Writer

About Kids Health



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