I remember when Queen Latifah made her guest appearance on Saturday Night Live, and she did that “Excedrin®” commercial parody. I was rollin’ when she was talking about how her white co-workers were ‘impressed’ that Condi Rice seemed rather articulate [for a Black woman]. Latifah’s character tell the audience that all the racist crap she endures at work has her suffering from terrible headaches and neck pains. Hence, she reaches for the new brand of Excedrin® For Racial Tension Headaches . The commercial — through satirical genius — is a true testament to how much racist micro-aggressions, whether in the work place, at university, or in a place we routinely shop, have dire consequences on our health.
Maybe you remember seeing this commercial. Or maybe you never have (it’s okay, you can click here to access it). I just remember thinking how I have experienced countless and similar situations portrayed in that skit. But such situations have resulted in more than just racial tension headaches. Anxiety, shortness of breath, insomnia, and horrible digestion problems accompanied my long journey of navigating through, and living in dominant spaces of whiteness, as that ‘token negro’ who defied all stereotypes; and such defiance obviously made it difficult for many of my white peers to interact with me. And yes some were just straight up racist in their beliefs about non-white folk. And yes, one does not need to work in an all white environment to experience this; simply living in the USA as a Black person earns most of us that “luxury.”
Over the years, I have become more and more attuned to how badly so many of us deal with racist-induced stresses and traumas. Maybe you are like me and grew up in the USA on the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet). Maybe someone called you a ‘nigger’ the first day of school, while you were attending an all white school like I experienced back in 1990. I remembered my shortness of breath, my anxiety, my fear that I would start having an asthma attack as I scurried down the hall, away from the anonymous teen who had uttered those words. That day, to deal with this pain, I remember I overdosed on a pack of Spree (or was it lots of Smarties?). The sugar high was fantastic … but it also was followed by a sugar crash.
During my tenure at a PWI in the 1990s, I had numerous interactions with white socio-economic privileged peers who were outspoken about how they knew that my twin brother and I could have only gotten into this prestigious Ivy League “because you guys are Black.”
The racial and socio-economic class climate at that institution was incredibly violent towards us working class, brown, black, and indigenous students. The sad thing is that I was plagued with insomnia throughout most of my time there, as well as anxiety attacks, and digestive health problems; though not 100% related to my school’s racial hostility, my “incurable ailments” (well, at least they seemed ‘incurable’ by allopathic doctor’s standards) were exacerbated by my nutritional illiteracy.
For example, the foods I reached for as comfort to deal with such prejudice, only worsened my ailments. As a matter of fact, now that I look back nearly 20 years later, I don’t know what came first! Did my high sugar, low nutrient diet create my insomnia and digestive issues first? Or, was I always sensitive to being an insomniac, but my nutritional illiteracy and reaching for ‘unhealthy’ foodstuffs make it worse? I kept on reaching for Dr. Pepper, Hershey Bars, milkshakes (even though I’m lactose intolerant) and Pop Tarts as my “meals” during college; in part because I liked the taste, but also because it was my ‘outlet’ to superficially handling a plethora of racist micro-aggressions. During my two appointments with a university psychiatrist to help me with my insomnia, he never asked me what my diet was like; nor did he inquire into what it may mean for a working class Black kid to be in an environment of dynastic white elite privilege. All I was prescribed were sleeping pills that did not work or get to the root of the problem. Seriously, how the hell is anybody going to sleep when they’re eating all those sugar and caffeinated products, and all while never exercising?
It wasn’t until years later that I realized how interconnected nutritional health ailments, structural racism, and healing are for those of us Black folk in the USA. Apparently, many Black folk tend to have higher blood pressure because of the emotionally traumatic effects of dealing with racism on a daily or weekly basis (see: Steffen et. al 2003; Brondolo et. al 2010). There is also literature that proposes that although obesity as well as pancreatic health issues are related to unhealthy diet (see: Tull et al. 1999; Wagner et. al 2011), these illnesses are deeply connected to the stress of living in a USA society in which racism is the norm.
I know food isn’t the only answer, but I thought I’d share food and herbal regiments that I have learned, over the years. I offer this has suggestion to help avoid consuming more racism and to eat things that support self-care in a society that would rather see all of us Black folk just die and go away; just disappear.
Racism Induced Insomnia
Lemon Balm. If you’re like me, perhaps your racism-induced insomnia also causes knotted stomach issues. Often at night, not only was I not able to fall asleep, I also was plagued by twisted stomach issues. My belly and intestines literally felt stagnated and lethargic; my system was in paralyzed shock from the trauma of that day. I learned that lemon balm tea or tincture can be incredibly relaxing for the nerves and for the stomach. After steeping the tea for about 20 minutes, I drink it. As a result, I have found that my stomach begins to unwind and my nerves start settling down. Lemon Balm helps to put me in a rather deep sleep too. In addition, stress and trauma can greatly compromise our immune systems; lemon balm is excellent for boosting the immune system and is especially helpful for people who get cold sore outbreaks during times of stress.
Skullcap. No, it’s not really from a skull, but the plant’s flowers resemble a skullcap. Though you should avoid if pregnant, skullcap is great for calming the nerves as well, but should be used in moderation. I find that Lemon Balm alone can be great, but often combining the two helps to put me into a pleasant sleep. However, just take the minimum, as too much can make you feel groggy or in a stupor.
Exercise. Exercising at least 5 times a week, 30-40 minutes a day, is a great stress reducer and also contributes to a better night’s sleep.
Eating late at night. I used to eat the most nutritionally vapid refined carb foods at night. Try not to eat high sugar and caffeinated products after 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and definitely don’t do that late at night. I know it can be hard, but eating late at night definitely affects sleeping well for most people. If you do have to eat something, try a slice of toasted whole grain bread or a little bit of yogurt.
Racism Induced Hypertension
Hibiscus Tea. Drinking this beautiful crimson tea can actually help reduce hypertension. I often suffered from appetite loss from trauma. Hibiscus tea is actually great for combating appetite loss, but be careful, as it is also a mild laxative, so don’t overdose on it.
Racism Induced Digestive Ailments
Even after graduating from college, I continued to have horrible digestive health problems that were diagnosed as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Little did I know was that my highly acidic and low-nutrient diet played a major role in this. After being introduced to Afrocentric veganism, through the work of Queen Afua, I learned to drastically “green” my diet and to be cognizant of how I was eating ‘badly’ to handle living in a ‘post-racial’ racist USA. What “greening” my diet meant was to drop many bad habits, including the three white deaths: refined flour, refined sugar, and refined table salts. What I replaced these things with were holistic and more live foods such as kale, okra, Spirulina, whole grains, and healthy fatty foods like avocados and olive oil. The three white deaths had destroyed my intestinal flora, contributing to my IBS issues. Most importantly, I realized that “greening” my diet was not just self-care; it was a conscious way for me to personally decolonize my mind and body, and to be cognizant of how I had been literally ‘ingesting’ racism through my mouth.
Over the past few days, since the verdict of George Zimmerman, I have had to be diligent about how I respond to what, for me, was an intensely disappointing and frightening reminder of how structural racism, and the taken for granted white racist narrative that Black people are ‘innately criminal’, continues to pervade the consciousnesses of many people in the USA; from those that we seek justice from. I have had to remind myself not to respond in anger by grabbing those comfort foods that I grew up with, no matter how strong the desire. I reach for kale chips as well as other nutrient dense and ‘life-giving’ foods that will nourish my body, help me sleep, and help me focus on continuing my work as an anti-racist health and food activist.
To learn more about “Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches,” you can click here.
About Dr. A. Breeze Harper. Dr. A. Breeze Harper is the director and founder of the Sistah Vegan Project, a organization dedicated to critical race feminist perspectives on veganism, as seen through the collective experiences of Black North American females. She holds degrees from Dartmouth College, Harvard University, and University of California-Davis. Dr. Harper’s knowledge about diversity within the field of food and wellness has marked her as a highly sought after paid consultant and speaker for many American universities. She has given many keynote addresses including at Boston University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Oregon, and Southwestern University. She teaches students, faculty, and staff how and why people have unique relationships to food and wellness and how these relationships are impacted by race, socio-economic class, gender, sexuality, and ability. She has published extensively, including Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books 2010). She graduated summa cum-laude from University of California-Davis with a PhD in critical geographies of race and food.
Brondolo, Elizabeth, Erica E. Love, Melissa Pencille, Antoinette Schoenthaler, and Gbenga Ogedegbe. 2010. Racism and Hypertension: A Review of the Empirical Evident and Implicatoins for Clinical Practice. American Journal of Hypertension 24 (5):518-529.
Steffen, Patrick R., Maya McNeilly, Norman Anderson, and Andrew Sherwood. 2003. Effects of Perceived Racism and Anger Inhibition on Ambulatory Blood Pressure in African Americans. Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (5):746-750.
Tull, S.E., T. Wickramasuriya, J. Taylor, V. Smith-Burns, M. Brown, G. Champagnie, K. Daye, K. Donaldson, N. Solomon, S. Walker, H. Fraser, and O.W. Jordan. 1999. Relationship of internalized racism to abdominal obesity and blood pressure in Afro-Caribbean women. Journal of the National Medical Association 91 (8):447-452.
Wagner, Julie A., Chandra Y. Osborn, Emily A. Mendenhall, Lisa M. Budris, Sophia Belay, and Howard A. Tennen. 2011. Beliefs about Racism and Health among African American Women with Diabetes: A Qualitative Study. Journal of the National Medical Association 103 (3):224-232.