“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe” ― Frantz Fanon

A thoughtful reader can derive multiple meanings from Fanon’s words; yet one of the main insights I glean from his wisdom may at first thought seem like a stretch to most Fanonian readers. Like many I think of the metaphorical strangulation oppressed peoples experience everywhere – but I also think of the physical act of breathing. That is the loss of breath. Bear with me as my thoughts on the matter manifest.

On July 17, 2014, Eric Gardner, a 6 ft 3 tall, 350 pound, 43 year old African American man was choked to death by a New York Police Department officer. His death was due to an illegal chokehold, which in Gardiner’s case was fatal because of his poor health. Gardener lived with a number of health problems such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, and sleep apnea. And while it may seem strange (maybe even maddening) to some that my focus is on Gardener’s health when for all intents and purposes he was choked to death – I believe there is more to learn from Gardiner’s cruel death than what meets the eye. The health of people of colour (referred to as racialized [1] peoples from this point on) is too often ignored in analyses of oppression. If Gardner were in better health, it’s probable that he would still be with us today and our world would have one more proud father and fierce voice for justice.

And therein lies my contention. Premature death and poor quality of life due to ill health is an all to real consequence of oppression that too often goes unnoticed or is made invisible by health narratives that emphasize lifestyle choices and biology. Structural and social determinants of health such as access to health care, access to good education, racism, class etc. are important predictors and determinants of health.

Is there evidence of disparate health outcomes among Canadians? Indeed, there is a difference with research demonstrating that racialized Canadians on the whole are more likely to report a decline in health over time, and depending on the racialized group have higher incidences of certain diseases, such as but not limited to:

  • An increased risk of cardiovascular disease among South Asian Canadians;
  • Increased anxiety and suicidal ideation in low-income racialized youth; and
  • Increased risk in post-partum depression among racialized Canadian women

The evidence above scratches the surface, and in fact the dearth of research on the topic reveals just how little we know about the health of racialized Canadians. Relative to white Canadians, very little has been written about the health of racialized Canadians, in large part due a striking absence of race based identifiers in our national registries and surveys. Yet, even with the little we know, there is cause for concern.

Health disparities that fall between racial lines are usually explained away as biological and/or socioeconomic; it’s important, however, to connect these disparities to overt or subtle forms of racism. A strong body of research (mostly American) reveals the very real impact of racial discrimination (perceived and actual) on physical and mental illness including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stress, anxiety, and depression.

The emphasis on individual and interpersonal encounters obscures the reality that racial discrimination is a historically entrenched cross-generational societal phenomenon that creates and preserves privilege for dominant groups at the expense of subordinated groups. While knowledge of the individual (i.e. biological or psychological) and interpersonal (e.g. experience of overt racism) is vital to linking racism and health inequity; it is equally important to discuss societal factors that produce racial discrimination, and understand the pathways in which such factors (whether material or psychological) are embodied and biologically expressed in individual health and population health patterns.

It is perhaps even more important that racialized peoples everywhere realize that health is a site of oppression, and that we must be vigilant caretakers of our bodies and minds as they are our most precious resources and instruments in the fight against oppression. And in the event (god forbid) that we find ourselves fighting for our life like our dear brother Eric, we will have planned to have the fortitude and strength of body and mind to fight back and win.

[1] The preference for racialized over people of colour (or visible minority) is in accordance with usage suggested by the Ontario Human Rights Commission which encourages the “expression of race as a social construct rather than as a description on perceived biological traits”.