Black women make up 7% of the United States population and account for about 13% of all women in the United States. With numbers like this, it is ridiculous that our maternal mortality rates are drastically higher than that of women of different racial make-ups. It is shameful that we are subjected to shorter life expectancies and more prone to chronic diseases such as anemia, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
According to The National Institute of Health (NIH) Journal of Women’s Health, “Health inequality among Black women is rooted in slavery.” When discussing how assigned female at birth (AFAB) people are disproportionately treated with bias in hospitals and the medical field overall, it is important to discuss where Black women fall within this spectrum of below-subpar service.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) Journal of Women’s Health published research on Feb. 2, 2021 that states: “Non-Hispanic Black women are three to four times more likely to die while pregnant or one year postpartum compared to Non-Hispanic white or Latinas.”
This shows a wide racial disparity that is in part responsible for how we approach seeking professional medical care. With this statistic in mind, it is easy to decode that the factors surrounding our skyrocketing death rates are in part because of our skin color. This comparison to non-Black people indicates the strength and courage Black AFAB people must have in order to risk seeking out medical care.
When I say Black women are being disparaged by healthcare inequality, this does not stop at the societally constructed terminology that’s applied by others onto our bodies. This issue is racially and ethnically Black – meaning Black women across the globe, regardless of how they express their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or nationality.
My personal experiences with medical professionals are almost entirely negative. I have consistently been told by doctors that my pain “is not as extreme as I made it out to be.” They did not believe me when I answered “No” in response to being asked if I used drugs. I was only 14 years old.
Being a seizure patient for almost four years as a young AFAB Black girl was dehumanizing. I was poked and prodded over and over again. The nurses would say they couldn’t see my veins due to the “darkness of my skin.” I was showing symptoms of anemia – but I was not tested until I was almost 18, a delay which has negatively affected my physical health.
Every time I think about seeing a doctor, I replay those experiences in my mind. Where would I be today if my experiences had actually benefited me? Would my diagnosis be different? Accurate even?
Those few examples merely scratch the surface of a plethora of reasons Black women do not seek out help in the medical realm. When you don’t see yourself being cared for and are instead consistently overlooked and traumatized, why would you return to that space?
Historically, modern medicine has been designed to cater primarily to white, cisgenderand straight men.
My question, then, is where do we account for Black women, who are the furthest from that category?
There is much work to be done when it comes to racism and medical bias. I believe this process starts with centering non-white AFAB Black people within medicine. The recent influx of Black medical practitioners in hospitals is a good step in this direction.
That being said, the medical establishment still has so much work to do. Many medical practitioners and trainees are taught – and believe – the myth that black people have thicker skin or have less sensitive nerve endings. The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science published a study in 2016 that showed 40% of first and second year medical students believed that “Black people’s skin was thicker than white people’s.”
The people being trained in modern medicine harbor a racist, non-factual belief that harms Black women every day. When medical professionals make these assumptions, Black lives are subjected to unnecessary testing that places lives on the line. This is without mentioning that Gynecology as a field was created in an era where Black women were enslaved and used for their bodies before anything else. There was no protocol to protect Black people from non-consensual experiments done “in the name of science.” We have always been abused and mistreated to help “advance society” in all aspects.
Henrietta Lacks is just our latest example. Her family is just now seeing reparations for HeLa cells – that have been used to treat both polio and COVID-19 – taken from her without her consent.
Residential segregation is a fundamental cause of racial disparities in health operating through many social institutions. This is statistically proven by a show of hospital quality around where many Black women give birth. Many racially and ethnically minoritized groups of women give birth in low-quality hospitals that have higher rates of maternal morbidity. Because of this, Black women experience poor patient-provider communication, if any at all, as well as difficulties obtaining the appropriate prenatal and postpartum care.
Oftentimes the limited resources hospitals manage to provide determine how effective care and treatment can actually be. Hospital quality greatly affects both the health services patients have access to and the quality of their care. If resources were allocated to focus on Black people and to strengthen our communities instead of putting money into the pockets of practitioners, maybe we’d get somewhere.
Until we see medical care that correctly reflects our skin color, our people and our personal struggles, it is hard to see any Black people have fruitful relationships with medical care long term.
AFAB Black people and women are subjected to treatment the world may never take accountability for. Medically, we are last to be accounted and accommodated for, but first to be asked to give up parts of ourselves to advance science and the world’s well-being. Our care, or rather lack thereof, within the field is something many will deny. It’s something many non-Black, non-AFAB and non-marginalized people fail to grasp as a result of privilege.
This is not to say all Black women have overwhelmingly negative things to say about medical care. Many of us have very positive and helpful experiences in the field – I will not deny that. Black women are not a monolith. Black women expand across nations and oceans in various states and origins. We are everywhere – and without us, many advancements wouldn’t have come to pass, be they medicinal or of any other sort.