Summer is nearly over, but there’s still time to add Linda Villarosa’s book to your summer reading list.
Grab that sunscreen, a beach chair and this book, though you may not be able to sit still once you start reading it.
Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of our Nation by award-winning journalist Linda Villarosa addresses myths about the super strength and numbness of bodies racialized as Black and their mistreatment with searing stories and rattling research.
With nearly 30 pages of notes and hundreds of citations, this is far from a topical treatment. It’ll get under your skin and take a good look.
An equally uncomfortable but relieving read, Villarosa shares painful stories of racism, assesses racism as a health problem and provides a treatment that addresses our overall well-being as Americans.
In turns out, racism is not just a social problem but a health risk. Villarosa claims that societal racism contributes to “toxic stress” that makes us all sick.
From the birth of gynecology and why American women are the most likely to die during childbirth due to the deadly myth that bodies racialized as Black are somehow different to our collective harm when Americans believe this, Villarosa makes the connections.
Written not as a detached observer but as a writer personally invested in a clean bill of health for all Americans, she demonstrates with each chapter that we are not only better together but also healthier.
Her determination to get us all not only to see but also to inspect the damage caused by racism is unflinching. This is not a health scare, as racism quite literally can determine who lives and who dies.
Consequently, it is critical reading that addresses our shared concerns about health disparities, environmental racism, medical ignorance, violence and neglect, and the impact on minoritized communities in the self-proclaimed wealthiest country in the world.
Written not to center the book as the end-all or cure-all, Villarosa refers the reader to Arline Geronimus and her theory of weathering. Geronimus believes that dealing with racism prematurely ages African American people. It’s not good for their skin or their bodies.
A thorough examination of the treatment of the bodies of African Americans, Villarosa provides a checkup that is desperately needed. No need to guess what’s going on in these bodies.
She names it explicitly and puts it in writing: “The poor health outcomes of the world’s wealthiest nation are often presented as mystery, yet their root causes are hiding in plain sight: these disparities driven by inequality and discrimination, which lead to poor health in people of color in the United States, particularly African Americans. The health outcomes of Black Americans are by several measures on par with people living in far poorer nations. At every stage of life, Blacks have poorer health outcomes than whites, and in most cases, then other ethnic groups.”
Rooted in American slavery, African Americans have long been socialized to believe that they have or must have thick skin to survive.
It starts with mother and child, Villarosa observes. Chapter four titled, “Something about being black is bad for you and your baby,” is equal parts traumatizing and tragic.
It stands out for me because it matters how you start in the world. Born small because your mother felt that she had to shrink in order to carry you to full term is not the way that anyone should be welcomed into the world.
During a study of pre-term birth for African American women, questions regarding “everyday race-related insults” were added as part of a scale created by David Williams. Participants were asked to respond yes or no to the following statements:
“1. You are treated with less courtesy than other people are.
2. You are treated with less respect than other people are.
3. You receive poorer service than other people at restaurants and stores.
4. People act as if they think you are not smart.
5. People act as if they are afraid of you.
6. People act as if they think you are dishonest.
7. People act as if they’re better than you are.
8. You are called names or insulted.
9. You are threatened or harassed.”
These questions were asked of pregnant women but could easily be asked of persons who are not expecting a child and/or their partners.
Racism is imbedded in everything and threatens the health of all our relationships, whether present or future. Villarosa’s Under the Skin will make us better for both.