PBS NOVA reached out to Child and Adolescent Development faculty Virginia Huynh, among several experts, for a recent article about how "allostatic load" from the stress of racism can affect health and resistance to illness--especially in the midst of the pandemic. Huynh's studies have pointed out that racism does not have to be overt to raise stress and compromise health. Microaggressions, the frequent, seemingly-subtle expressions that say "you're different and don't fit-in" compound to disrupt multiple regulatory systems.
Excerpt: Huynh contributes to that paradigm in her lab at California State University, Northridge. Her research indicates that young people don’t need to be on the receiving end of racist behavior to be affected physiologically, nor does the behavior need to be overt or extreme for it to do damage. In one study, Huynh and her colleagues collected saliva from 300 teenagers over the course of a day to measure cortisol levels. Teenagers who reported experiencing discrimination had higher levels of cortisol that did not decline normally over the course of the day—suggesting that they were not only experiencing more stress but that they weren’t recovering from it fully. In a second study, another cohort of teenagers experienced increased levels of cortisol after simply witnessing or overhearing a racist comment, indicating that even vicarious discrimination can create a physiological response.