Posted on October 14, 2011

Skin Colour Matters When It Comes to Canadians’ Health: Study

Theresa Boyle, Health Zone, October 13, 2011

Skin colour matters when it comes to Canadians’ health, new research shows.

Black Canadians with darker skin are more likely to report poorer health than black Canadians with lighter skin, a study from the University of British Columbia has found.

The study, published online in the current issue of the Social Science & Medicine journal, provides the first Canadian evidence of the health impact of what is known as “colourism”–discrimination targeted more strongly at darker-skinned than lighter-skinned people of colour.

It found that the odds of identifying oneself as having poor overall health are 4.8 times greater for black Canadians with darker skin than black Canadians with lighter skin.

“It is a form of inequality that has implications for health and well-being, so understanding it, pursing it further and having a sense of what is going on is what you have to do before you can start to try to mitigate these inequalities,” said Gerry Veenstra, the study’s author and a professor in the Department of Sociology.

The study involved a telephone survey of nearly 1,500 participants from Toronto and Vancouver in 2009. They self-reported their racial identities as black, Asian, South Asian and white.

Among them were 47 respondents who identified themselves as black Canadians–27 of whom said they had darker skin and 20 of whom said they had lighter skin.

The broad racial classifications typically used by health researchers may actually underestimate the magnitude of racial health inequalities, Veenstra said.

The study also found that mistaking an individual’s racial identity can have significant physical or mental impacts. Participants who reported higher levels of racial identity mismatches were found to be at greater risk of high blood pressure, poorer self-rated mental health and poorer self-rated overall health.

For example, the odds of reporting high blood pressure are two times greater for those who consider themselves to be white, but believe others tend to think they are something else such as mixed-race, than for those who consider themselves to be white and believe others do too. The odds of the former reporting poor mental health are 1.8 times greater.

“This is inherently about social inequality. Uncovering and understanding inequality in Canadian society is of intrinsic interest and importance,” Veenstra said, emphasizing that race is a social construct, not a biological one.