If we are to break cycles of deprivation and begin to redress inequalities in health between the white British and ethnic minority populations, policymakers should put more emphasis on structural disadvantage and experiences of racial discrimination, says Dr Laia Bécares.
Studies have consistently shown that racial discrimination can lead to poor health, and that racism suffered by a parent can also adversely affect a child. We know that racial discrimination affects the health and life chances of an individual, and it leads to inequalities in health among ethnic minority people, compared to the white majority population.
We know, too, that racial discrimination experienced by one individual impacts not only on that particular person, but on family members of the same generation, and those of previous and future generations. For example, if someone is discriminated against at work in terms of a promotion to a better position, or even in terms of getting hired, this has clear important financial consequences for that person, but also for her/his children, and older family members who may be under their care.
In a similar way, when a member of a family is racially discriminated against, this may harm the health of that person, as well as the health of others around them, including their children. In a recent study we examined whether this was true, and if so, what were the mechanisms linking experiences of racial discrimination of family members, to children’s health and development. We focused on two possible mechanisms that may explain how racial discrimination experienced by one member of the family can lead to changes in children of that family.
Firstly, we looked at the possible impact of racial discrimination on a mother’s mental health and then at the possible impact on parenting practice, particularly the possibility of it increasing harsh discipline tactics. These two mechanisms are centred on increased stress experienced by the mother following experiences of racial discrimination. We also looked at three different types of exposure to racial discrimination – that suffered by the mother, that suffered by the family as a whole, and that affecting the whole neighbourhood.
For this study, we analysed data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a representative study of children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. Information about the MCS children has been collected at various points since the start of the study, and we used data collected when the children were between five and 11 years old. Racial discrimination was measured in terms of the mother’s experience of racially motivated insults, disrespectful treatment, or unfair treatment. We also used measures of whether family members had been treated unfairly, and whether the family lived in a neighbourhood where racial insults or attacks were common.
Mental health was assessed using the Kessler-6 scale – a well-established scale based on how often an individual has felt such things as depression and nervousness over the past month. We measured harsh parenting practices by using records of how often parents had smacked or shouted at their children. And we measured the child’s socioemotional development by using another well-established scale – the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. We adjusted for complicating factors such as mother’s age at time of birth, mother’s educational attainment, household income, whether the mother was born in the UK, and the language most often spoken in the home.
For each factor we used data gathered at relevant stages. So, the measure of racial discrimination is based on data collected when the children were five years old, the mother’s mental health and parenting practices when the children were seven-years-old, and the outcome when the children were 11. The sample was pooled from all UK ethnic minority groups.
We found that around the time of the child’s fifth birthday, almost a quarter (23%) of ethnic minority mothers reported having been racially insulted. Mothers who had been racially insulted had poorer mental health two years later, than mothers who did not report experiencing racially motivated insults. We also found that family members had been treated unfairly, and that this was associated with a worsening of the mother’s mental health over time.
Both increased maternal psychological distress and increased harsh parenting practices were associated with increased socio-emotional difficulties for the child at age 11. A worsening of the mother’s mental health had the most consistent indirect effect on a child’s socioemotional difficulties six years later. Family experiences of unfair treatment all had a negative direct effect on a child’s later socio-emotional development.
Our results also showed some direct effects of racial discrimination on children, even though we were not able to examine whether they had experienced any racial discrimination.
We have to acknowledge some limitations of the study. For instance, we restricted ourselves to discrimination faced by mothers and its consequences, while there are other things going on in families that affect children’s health. Plus, ethnic minority children are likely to experience discrimination directly at school, and we were not able to measure this. The study does, however, offer strong support to our hypothesis that a mother’s experience of racial insults, of being treated disrespectfully by shop staff and broader family experience of unfair treatment, harms children over time as a result of the mother’s worsening mental health. This has been underestimated in the past.
Whatever is done to reduce a child’s direct experience of racial discrimination – at school, for instance – the mother’s experience of racial discrimination, and the effect that these experiences have on her mental health and stress levels, is also important for the health of her children.
Racial discrimination is harmful to individuals, families, and communities, and so efforts should be targeted at eliminating it. This will ensure that everyone has equal access to rights and opportunities in society, and will also have important benefits for the mental health of mothers, and the successful development of children.
- The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).
- This blog is adapted from an earlier post on the Child of our Time site