A collaboration between art and research to show how racism hurts child health

Laia Bécares is a Joint ESRC Future Research Leader / Hallsworth Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research (CMIST). Her research examines the determinants of ethnic inequalities in health, with a focus on racial discrimination and life course effects.

Laia Bécares

Experiencing racial discrimination is harmful to health, as the increased stress that results from experiences of racism leads to a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Racial discrimination is also associated with poor health through socioeconomic inequality, as racial discrimination leads to poorer employment opportunities, reduced income, and increased chances of living in a deprived neighbourhood, all of which cause poor health and wellbeing.

The association between racial discrimination and poor health is longstanding, and has been documented using cross-sectional and longitudinal data, and with both basic and advanced statistical methods. Evidence on the harm of racial discrimination on health comes from several countries, and in the UK, ESRC-funded research has established that racism is prevalent. Research has shown that adults who report experiencing racial discrimination at some point in their lives – either in the form of racial insults or harassment; as unfair and disrespectful treatment; or as employment discrimination – have worse health than adults who don’t report experiencing racial discrimination.

Although most studies have focused on adults, the recent availability of data on children, including the ESRC-funded Millennium Cohort Study, has allowed researchers to examine how experiences of racial discrimination are associated with children’s health and development. We have found that ethnic minority children growing up in an environment where experiences of racial discrimination are common (where their mothers are racially insulted; treated disrespectfully and unfairly because of their ethnicity; and where their family members are also treated unfairly because of their ethnicity), score lower on cognitive tests when they are 5 years old. They are also more likely to suffer from socioemotional problems as they grow up, as compared to ethnic minority children of the same age and similar socioeconomic conditions whose mothers and family members have not experienced racial discrimination. Other studies show a direct association between children’s own experiences of racial discrimination and poorer health.

What can we do to address this? Anti-racism movements and key legislation have resulted in reductions of certain forms of racism over time, and interventions have been developed to modify the association between experienced racial discrimination and poor health. But racism still exists and is visible across the full range of social interactions, from the most extreme – racially-motivated attacks – to more subtle forms of everyday racism, including racist representations in the media, which help maintain and reproduce ethnic inequalities in education, employment, housing, and ultimately, in health.

Academic research, relayed through its usual outlets, is key to documenting the prevalence of racism, and understanding the patterns and mechanisms by which racial discrimination is harmful to health, but as Celia and Jenny Kitzinger mention in a previous post, collaborations and engagement through art help research findings to have impact. With the purpose of disseminating results of the harms of racial discrimination beyond the academic community, the writer and actor Yusra Warsama, the filmmaker Mauro Camal, and I, have collaborated to develop three short videos that aim to act as a counter-narrative to racist messages common in society. We used evidence from UK and international studies to guide our discussions on racism and child health, which have served as the inspiration behind the three pieces written and narrated by Yusra, and filmed by Mauro.

As these videos highlight, the harm of racism on children’s chances for a healthy and successful life is unfair and modifiable.

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