Could microaggressions affect your health?

An exploratory study from the Department of Communication looks at the physical toll of subtle racism.

A microaggression can make your blood boil—and now, a blood test may be able to prove it. In an exploratory study, Assistant Professor John Crowley is poking fingers to find out happens in the body after a racist encounter. Overt discrimination has long been linked to health disparities, but subtle slights? That’s a newer question. “We really don’t know much about how to cope with microaggressions, and what they can do to people,” says Crowley, ’12, who teaches in the Department of Communication. 

The finger-prick blood test looks at biological markers of immune health. UW research scientist Eleanor Brindle, who specializes in biological anthropology, will analyze the samples, and Crowley and his collaborators will interview participants—black and Latino adults who have recently endured a microaggression—about forgiveness (do you hold a grudge?), disclosure (do you bottle up your feelings?), and social support (do your friends and loved ones help you through it?).

The goal is to see if there is a correlation between the frequency of microaggressions and immune health. Along the way, they will explore if factors like social support can soften the blow of these encounters, i.e., do positive messages overpower negative ones? Says Crowley: “It would give people in educational settings some evidence to say, ‘We need to teach what to look out for, and how to communicate in response to them.’”