Amani Allen researches chronic disorders at the University of California, Berkeley. One cool morning last summer an audience of several thousand came to the Chautauqua Institution amphitheater to hear what she had to say. The news was not good.
Allen began with humor, and I bit, but her graphs and numbers were about to lead us down a somber path. I snapped into reality halfway through, with the thought, this is how innocent people are aging before their time and, standing on the stage, this impressive scientist could very well be one of those people.
Allen kiddingly reported her age as somewhere between 30 and 50 and later I wrote down her observation: “In a restaurant only my race and gender are visible.” She is African American. I scribbled more notes: “AA more likely die at early ages; Suffer more morbidity (quality of life).” Reality struck. She had suddenly made it personal just by being who she was.
Allen might be living what she lectured, that is to say, suffering from the pathologies that she ticked off—some, all, and others as yet unmentioned, possibly affecting her even as she stood there talking. Now she projected slides to large amphitheater screens, showing four research graph curves comparing stress load rates that translate into getting old before one’s time for demographics of white and black females and males. She picked a black female point representing the aging of the average black woman, age 30. That black female point matched up with a white female point about seven years older. This meant that black women were aging faster. Faster than anybody else. Much faster.
In that same population herself, the vibrant Allen might be in the process of being robbed of nearly 10 years of her life, a victim of being female and black. No matter her doctorate, research, socioeconomic position, or her humor, radiance, courage, DNA, gene structure or anything else.
In one sense, she remained much like the little girl she was during her very first remembered racial experience that she related to us, in kindergarten, enduring the white fingers of a classmate who rubbed at the dark skin on the back of Allen’s hand expecting to “get the dirt off.” The little white girl was no doubt checking out a curiosity about a color different than her own. Allen was experiencing her first microaggression, innocent as it all certainly seemed, and maybe was. And maybe not.
Calvin Eaton, the founder and content organizer of the local Rochester education group, 540WMain Inc., mentioned in a conversation recently that the average black person experiences five racist acts every day. At that rate Allen, starting at age five, might experience 63,875 racist acts directed at her through age 40, not counting the perhaps innocent kindergarten reference to her skin color being dirt.
If we include Allen’s first five years, too, that bumps her total number to 73,000 racial slights, microaggressions, macroaggressions, frowns, threats, and unwanted touches of the hair, skin, or other body parts. Each of these aggressions might bring on a delivery of cortisol as the body tries to manage the related internal stress. Cortisol buildup affects brain cells and their synaptic connections. Also negatively affected at the same time are genes and chromosomes. Internalizing all these multiple aggressions will build up the average black woman’s stressor load quite mightily and cause her to age faster, a consequence that has the awkward name of “premature aging.”
A few nights after Allen’s lecture my wife and I ran into her at the theater. I mentioned my interest and asked if she could direct me to more of her research. She later graciously emailed access to several of her research publications.
One included a study she had undertaken with seven other scientists, among them, Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn, co-authors of the bestseller book, “The Telomere Effect.” Blackburn had won a Nobel Prize for her earlier work with telomerase, an enzyme important in combating (among other pathologies) the premature aging that Allen lectured about.
The deadly effects of premature aging are believed to be environmental, in other words caused by previously mentioned outside stressors. That seemingly benign “premature aging” term carries nasty specifics that apply to females of color, but also to a slightly lesser degree to black males and lesser yet to white women.
All black American females risk getting sick sooner, from routine colds to more exotic setbacks, more often, more severely, and in more clusters of attacks. Other comparable health risks that Blackburn and Epel report that similar stressors can bring on are Crohn’s, celiac, or gum disease, cardiovascular problems, immune cell weakening, and many other sicknesses, acting individually or maybe ganging up. When I shared with Allen what I was writing she later told me in an email that she “was in the distribution somewhere” of affected black females on her graphs though she didn’t know where.
We might feel that we are making great progress in eliminating racial discrimination. Allen’s lecture and the science behind it is showing we have a long way to go.
John Strazzabosco is author of “Ninety Feet Under: What Poverty Does to People.” He lives in Rochester.