BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. – Weathering is a word – and a process – that works in contradictory ways.
Biologically speaking, weathering can be good – until the price paid for it becomes too high. And then it turns bad.
Arline Geronimus, Sc.D., the University of Michigan public health professor who has researched her theory of biological weathering of African Americans for decades, wanted her audience Oct. 22 to know the two faces of the term. (See the main story ‘Of Race and “Weathering”‘.)
She said the word itself is a contronym, which is a word having two meanings that contradict one another. She captured the contradiction in these two sentences: “The rock was weathered (eroded) by the storm.” And: “The family weathered (withstood) the recession.”
She wondered if researchers like her might be more successful at promoting population health equity if they focused “on explicating the health costs of tenacity and hope in the context of racially structured constraints.”
Put simply: What price are black people paying for their hope and tenacity in an unequal, racist society?
She talked of the perverse irony of what it can mean to be resilient if you are an African American. As an example, she mentioned raising a family. “Child rearing itself is an expression of hope for self, for family, for community,” she said, but black people must do so “in the face of structural constraints.” A range of studies indicates that the weathering effects of “tenacious, high-effort coping” with structural inequity can lead to bad health outcomes that include metabolic syndrome, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, accelerated cellular aging and cardiovascular disease.
“I hope we can all agree that no one should have to increase their risk of metabolic syndrome, hypertension, obesity, accelerated cellular aging or maternal deaths because they persevered against structurally racist odds,” Geronimus said. “Or simply because they tried to live an ordinary life.”
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