What is ‘Weathering’? The phenomenon that is killing Black people slowly

OPINION: Weathering is rooted in a history of marginalization; repeated exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, racism, and perpetual discrimination that harms our health

Black man stressed
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Racism kills; and that is made abundantly clear with every Black life lost to police misconduct, environmental hazard, or stress-induced illness.

But the slow crumbling of our health due to systemic inequalities and generational trauma has a name that you should know about. Social scientists now call repeated exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, racism, and perpetual discrimination that harms our health, weathering — a phenomenon that kills us in slow, less obvious ways. 

The term was coined by Arline Geronimus, associate director and professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at University of Michigan, to describe the erosion of health that impacts Black and Brown people much earlier in life than white Americans. Borrowing the term from environmental studies, weathering is similar to the soil erosion that happens overtime due to exposure to the elements — a small buildup of negatively impacting events eventually leads to a massive landslide or avalanche. In humans, this erosion is the accumulation of a broad range of adverse and largely preventable health conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and poorer mental health, that lead to early death.

Racism forms cracks in our spirit, like cracks in the pavement of a busy road. Constant bouts of discrimination fill and expand the crack, like raindrops. Over time, the crack becomes a pothole that no longer resembles its original form. The same is true of our cells over time. A recent study found that Black adults had a biological age that was 2.6 years older than their actual age. 

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Stress, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear causes DNA methylation and telomere shortening, signs of aging in our cells. These epigenetic changes are so stark that they can be passed onto future generations, serving as a biological thumbprint of generational trauma on our youth.

As our cells age, we grow tired and less able to deal with the world’s stressors. We become a shell of our former selves and without timely intervention we risk chronic illness or early death. On average, life expectancy is 3 to 4 years lower for Black Americans than white Americans, even when differences in socioeconomic status are negligible. 

A Closer Look at Weathering

Weathering is rooted in a history of marginalization. Redlining and historical segregation places us in less desirable and unsafe locations. Hypersexualized images of Black women and the painful trauma of mass incarceration are sold back to us in movies and music. Blackface and the waving of the Confederate flag remind us that the legacy of slavery is alive and well; and made salient when people call you the n-word or touch your hair without invitation. Little credit is given to our social, political, cultural, and economic contributions which have birthed our nation’s many customs and traditions; and the suggestion that we teach our history, the nation’s true history, through critical race theory is met with outrage and resistance.

Even more, few other races have to have the talk with their kids about how to handle yourself around a police officer or when you go shopping in a store. You get the point — racism guides how we navigate the world; and still, despite the many obstacles before us, we are the gatekeepers of culture, dictating popular ways of life and spurring socio-economic growth in remarkable ways. 

Living in a race-conscious society means that the negative effects of weathering impact us all, but it’s effects are greatest among Black adults who engage in high-effort coping everyday. Chronic exposure to social and economic disadvantages leads to accelerated declines in physical and mental health, partially explaining the racial disparities that exist in a wide array of health conditions.

Black woman stressed and exhausted
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

When Black people say they are mentally and emotionally tired, or that they are feeling the weight of the world, believe them. Racism chips at our health in subtle yet profound ways, but if you look closely you can spot the warning signs. You may notice a little weight gain after a stressful week or that you’re getting headaches more frequently. Your mood may fluctuate and performing once enjoyable activities may feel like a chore. Our body finds ways to protect itself by releasing high levels of cortisol and epinephrine, chemicals that allow us to stay on high alert, but at high amounts they are harmful to our health, raising blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol levels.

To boot, living in a constant state of fight or flight — where you feel the need to constantly defend and protect yourself — greatly affects your mental and emotional health in ways that others are unaware of. For example, office culture is so unwelcoming to Black employees that many of them don’t like being there. Existing in work and academic settings, where covert racism and microaggressions are the norm is stressful, which explains why many Black employees prefer to work from home. 

Overcoming the Weathering Effect

Fortunately, people of color are more than just a neighborhood or group of people — we’re a family and when you have family, you have everything. Our shared lived experiences lead to a type of kinship that is seen and felt. This helps to explain the collective heavy feeling that Black and Brown people experience during times of social strife. When our kinfolk experience pain, as evidenced in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd or more recently the sudden deaths of Earl “DMX” Simmons and Michael K. Williams, we all share in that pain. In that vein, we all play a role in carrying the collective burdens that society imposes upon us, lightening the load for our brothers and sisters.

So what do we do and where do we start? Unpacking our trauma and the many ways that we have been marginalized is one way to counter the damaging effects of weathering. Working together and reminding ourselves, and the world, of our worth also have immeasurably positive impacts on our health. On a macro level the negative effects of weathering on the health of Black and Brown people are unlikely to go anywhere until we fix issues of structural racism and discrimination; but on a micro level we can limit its impact by embracing all the small joys and victories that life has to offer.

My suggestion is this: protect your peace at all costs. Don’t sweat the small stuff, support Black businesses, go on that trip, wear your hair how you want, ask for that promotion — or better yet build your own. Life is too short to let society weather our health and spirit away. 

Dr. Shamard Charles is an assistant professor of public health and health promotion at St. Francis College and sits on the anti-bias review board of Dot Dash/VeryWell Health. He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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