Making The Case That Discrimination Is Bad For Your Health
When Arline Geronimus was a student at Princeton University in the late 1970s, she worked a part-time job at a school for pregnant teenagers in Trenton, N.J. She quickly noticed that the teenagers at that part-time job were suffering from chronic health conditions that her whiter, better-off Princeton classmates rarely experienced. Geronimus began to wonder: how much of the health problems that the young mothers in Trenton experienced were caused by the stresses of their environment?
It was later, during her graduate studies, that Geronimus came up with the term weathering — a metaphor, she thought, for what she saw happening to their bodies. She meant for weathering to evoke a sense of erosion by constant stress. But also, importantly, the ways that marginalized people and their communities coped with the drumbeat of big and small stressors that marked their lives.
At first, lots of folks in academic circles rolled their eyes at her coinage, arguing on panels and in newspapers that poor, black communities had worse health outcomes than better-off white communities because of unhealthy life choices, and immutable genetic differences. But as the science around genetics and stress physiology became better understood, Geronimus’ “weathering” hypothesis started picking up steam in wider circles.
We spoke to Geronimus, now a public health a public health researcher and professor at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, on the latest episode of the Code Switch podcast about how weathering works, and why it took so long for people to come around to what Geronimus and other public health professionals had been saying for years. [This interview was edited for clarity and length.]
CS: Can we get into the science of weathering a little bit?
AG: There have been folk notions and laypeople have thought that health differences between populations — such as black versus white in the U.S. — were somehow related to differences in our DNA, that we were, in a sense, molecularly programmed to have this disease or that disease.