I wish I were preaching to the choir. As a white person who has heard white people talk, I know I am not. It is white people who still resist or refuse to recognize the myriad of struggles inherent to simply being Black in the United States that I would like to address in this entry. Empathy is vital to our wellness. According to wellright.com (bit.ly/3b0DK3u), this is because it improves socialization and emotional regulation. This means empathetic people are more pleasant to be around, enjoy broader and deeper interpersonal connections, and thus maintain lasting and loyal relationships that benefit the empathic person during good times and bad. Empathy lends itself to safety nets. A whole range of wellness benefits cascade from this. So, even if for only selfish reasons, it behooves you to be nicer to people whose situations you cannot fully appreciate.
In very overgeneralized terms and with very broad brushstrokes, I would like to discuss two specific medical issues that have an especially detrimental effect on Black people in this country. Those being hypertension and diabetes. I have literally heard white people dismissively say that Black people should “just get over slavery,” “stop playing the race card” and “eat better food.”
Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)
Hypertension drastically increases all sorts of other health risk factors. As I have written in the past about cortisol and inflammation, extended bouts of stress of any kind wreak havoc on our bodies. The problem is that hypertension and stress create feedback loops. Each amplifies the other, and over time, quality and length of life can be greatly diminished.
For over a century, medical professionals and researchers have demonstrated that Black people are as much as 50 percent more likely than white people to develop hypertension. This exacerbates elevated risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, aneurisms, kidney failure, eye diseases, diabetes, dementia and compromised memory and cognition. Researchers have pointed to some possible genetic factors. But, when I read these reports, I am rather surprised that they seem to scratch their heads and wonder why they cannot more readily explain it all away with DNA.
Emotional duress raises blood pressure. White people, I am not telling you that you do not have stress or fear in your life. I am not telling you that you do not know struggle. I am telling you that your whiteness does not itself specifically cause those challenges. Many Black people cannot trust that they are completely safe practically anywhere (not even in their own homes). The traumas of poverty, harassment from all sides, lack of opportunities and options, constantly having to work harder to achieve less, distrust of healthcare and any number of other hardships place many Black people in a position of being constantly inundated with cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones. There are dozens of microaggressions white people are simply unaware of that Black people experience every day, so it is not helpful to cavalierly tell Black people to “chill out.”
Black people are already prone to diabetes as a result of hypertension; however, the traditional African-American diet (sometimes called Soul Food) plays a huge role as well. As a nutrition coach, I ask people in their evaluations what kind of foods they crave. If someone tells me they crave chewy, mushy, gooey, creamy, fatty and/or oily foods, I immediately look for red flags connected to fear, stress or depression. The texture of these foods remind us at a fundamental level of mothers’ breasts, and they console us. There really are literal comfort foods. Also, crunchy foods can be an indication of anxiety, which is easy to understand if you connect that mouthfeel to nail biting or clicking, teeth grinding, joint cracking, mindless finger drumming or tapping, leg bouncing and fidgeting.
What kinds of foods fit that description of mushy and/or crunchy? Mashed potatoes, heavy gravies and sauces, fatty meats, cooked-to-mush vegetables, pie, cake, ice cream, soft cheeses, pasta, bread, various types of candy, crispy bacon, fried foods, cookies, chips and the list goes on. Anyone of any race might want these foods. That is obviously not an inherently Black trait. However, there are reasons for these types of foods being stereotypically associated with Black folks and their diets.
Aside from the historical fact that Black people often did not have access to more nutritious foods, today many impoverished areas do not have grocery stores. These are now commonly referred to as “food deserts,” and they sometimes offer nothing better than what can be had at fast food joints, gas stations and convenience stores. And before you suggest the residents of these places just drive to a grocer, try doing that on the bus in North Carolina to see how convenient it will be. The emotional connection to the tradition of Soul Food is its own matter (and not really what I am criticizing per se), but the practical present situation where many Black people literally cannot buy healthy food is of critical importance here.
Between hypertension, physical unavailability of healthful diet options and systemic racism permeating practically every institution, it is not only unreasonable, but also insensitive and ignorant, for white people to presume Black people simply do not care about their health. This, paired with the notion that Black people are somehow superhuman in terms of bearing physical, emotional and psychological stressors, combines to create a conundrum in which many Black people are not given the opportunity to achieve and maintain good health and sound wellness.
Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.
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