The coversr story of the New York Times Magazine on April 11 garnered more attention for a problem that is increasingly becoming news but is not new: Black women and babies die at alarmingly high rates during pregnancy and childbirth. But the article advanced the conversation in two important ways: first, by acknowledging that racism is to blame for these disparities, and second, by elevating the role of doulas as a potential intervention for Black mothers and babies.
The author, Linda Villarosa, explained: “Recently there has been growing acceptance of what has largely been, for the medical establishment, a shocking idea: For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions—including hypertension and pre-eclampsia—that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death.”
But the reality is that it’s not just pregnant women who see the health impacts of racism—these types of disparities cross gender, age, ethnic and racial lines. People of color, especially African-Americans, experience the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and much more. Therefore, to truly get at the root causes of these health problems, we’d need to eliminate racism. We’d need to dismantle or dramatically reform institutions that uphold racist paradigms.
In the meantime, interventions like doulas, as the Times piece suggests, could protect pregnant people and buffer the impacts of racism on maternal health. This raises the question: What other interventions should be considered for the wide range of conditions affecting people exposed to systemic injustices while the work to change the larger structures continues? Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be looking at a number of those potential interventions to shine a light on the approaches that could ameliorate or prevent the health impacts of racism.
For our first piece, we’ll look at self-regulation, an umbrella term used primarily by psychologists to describe a set of skills that allow people to deal appropriately with stress, potentially preventing it from having toxic impacts. One thing that we know about the physiological stress described in the New York Times Magazine piece is that whether it is toxic or not depends on our ability to cope with the stress. The inability to cope with stress is part of what results in the health problems we see into adulthood. Because of its potential, and the fact that these skills can be taught and strengthened throughout a lifetime, self-regulation is a promising intervention for the health impacts of racism.