Internalised racism can 'make you sick'

18 July 2010 - 02:00 By SUBASHNI NAIDOO

Prejudice and discrimination can make you sick - literally.

New research in KwaZulu-Natal revealed this week that people who suffered under apartheid were more likely to also suffer from diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

At least 10 American academics teamed up with students from the University of Zululand to conduct the local phase of their US study, which has included African population groups in the Caribbean, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

The researchers tested the concept of "internalised racism" - the extent to which individuals have internalised stereotypes about their race - on 1200 African volunteers over 30 years of age.

Led by Professor Ephraim Gwebu, from the Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina, the team also examined cortisol levels - a chemical produced by the brain to deal with psychological stress. Irregular levels of cortisol have been associated with disease. Findings showed that in SA a higher number of older people examined displayed irregular cortisol levels.

"A reason for this may be that the legacy of apartheid was more entrenched here than in other countries. We also found that a large percentage of older South Africans still held on to the stereotypes which they have inculcated into their lives," said Gwebu.

Dr Eugene Tull, from the University of Pittsburg, said the study showed people who had internalised stereotypes that "black people were mentally deficient and incapable of doing many things" had reached a point where they were battling to cope with the stress in their environment.

"They are not coping well and consequently they are experiencing a lot more emotional and psychological distress.

''This has a negative impact on their physiology, resulting in dysfunction ... which leads to poor regulation of a stress hormone that eventually ends up hurting you instead of helping you," explained Tull.

He said irregular cortisol levels resulted in accumulation of abdominal fat which created a state called "insulin resistance".

"This is ... associated with the development of glucose intolerance, diabetes and cardiovascular disease."