Superwoman Ain’t Black: Medical Myths About Black Pain

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Sarah Baartman was a popular attraction in 19th century European freak shows. After Dr. William Dunlop tricked the South African Khoikhoi woman into leaving her homeland, Baartman became widely recognized with the stage-name “Hottentot Venus” due to her large buttocks. Baartman fell victim to the desirous hands and hungry eyes of the European public before dying in 1815 at the age of 26. According to BBC, “her brain, skeleton, and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974.”

In 1941, Virginia-native Henrietta Lacks moved to Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and two children. After complaining of abdominal pain, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins University for medical attention, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, doctors removed two cervical samples. Lacks died at 31. Her cells became known as HeLa, gaining fame throughout the medical research world for their ability to multiply rapidly and maintain high durability. HeLa cells have been used in over ten thousand medical patents, including the polio vaccine. Lacks’s family have yet to receive any compensation from Johns Hopkins.

Serena Williams is one of the greatest athletes of all time. With the most Grand Slam titles among active tennis players, her ability is unparalleled. Last year, Williams faced one of the most challenging battles of her life: childbirth. After a C-section, the star athlete, who has a history of blood clots, began to experience shortness of breath. Pulling herself out of bed, she demanded a CT scan be performed. Healthcare professionals ignored her wishes and gave her an ultrasound instead. They found nothing. Williams, fighting for her life, demanded the scan again. Doctors finally listened to her and found blood clots on her lungs. She was treated for a pulmonary embolism days after the birth of her daughter.

Black women struggle to have their pain recognized and taken seriously by medical professionals, and by America at large. This struggle is inextricably linked to the global history of subjecting Black women’s bodies to the whims of white authority. Sarah Baartman. Henrietta Lacks. Serena Williams. Their suffering exists simultaneously in the past and present due to widespread cultural amnesia—an unwillingness to acknowledge centuries of violence inflicted against these marginalized people.

One of the most notorious benefactors of this tradition was Dr. Marion Sims, who rose to prominence in the 19th century for his trailblazing vaginal operations on enslaved women. He performed these procedures without anesthesia. Sims, known widely as the Father of Modern Gynecology, did not administer the drug to his Black patients because he believed that they did not experience pain comparable to Whites.

Sims names three enslaved patients in his autobiography, Story of My Life (1884): Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Anarcha and Betsey were only teenagers when they became Sims’s patients. At the age of 17, Anarcha endured thirty fistula surgeries at the hands of Sims. After a botched operation implanting a sponge in Lucy’s bladder, Sims noted, “Lucy’s agony was extreme. She was much prostrated and I thought she was going to die…”

It seems, then, that Sims held two opposing views about his patients’ experiences. How could he witness Black women’s intense suffering and still believe their pain was different from that of Whites? Unfortunately, Sims’s dichotomous way of thinking resembles the forms of medical prejudice that exist today.

In his autobiography, Sims clings to the belief that the enslaved women sent to him by their owners were “clamorous” to be on his operating table.This calls into question the concept of consent for slave women in the 19th century. It is doubtful that Sims understood the impossibility of consent for women who were considered property. After all, he was a man who refused to take fault in his own botched operations, which led to the deaths of many. He was a man who blamed his black employees (referred to as “ignorant midwives of their own color”) for his medical shortcomings, and who believed Black women could not experience pain like White women.

 “Consent, like anesthesia, was not accessible to women like Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey in the 19th century.”

It is more likely that these women simply could not contradict the desires of their slave masters and other White male authorities without facing severe punishment. Consent, like anesthesia, was not accessible to women like Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey in the 19th century.

The success of the Father of Modern Gynecology is a direct result of the physical and psychological sacrifices of these three women and countless other unnamed slave women. Throughout Sims’s life were many opportunities for him to reckon with his racial biases as a medical professional, yet he never questioned his prejudice, power, and privilege.

Many medical professionals today likewise refuse to confront their biases against patients who do not look like them. A 2016 study completed at the University of Virginia suggests this. Psychology PhD candidate Kelly Hoffman asked 222 White medical students if they believed biological differences existed between Blacks and Whites. Half of the students answered affirmatively. These students at a top medical school believed one or more of the following statements to be true:

  1. Blacks have less sensitive nerve endings than Whites.
  2. Blacks age slower than Whites.
  3. Blacks’ blood coagulates quicker than Whites’ blood.

All statements are inarguably false, suggesting that the racial prejudices of the fledgling years of gynecology have not died. In fact, these instances of undiagnosed racism have worsened. In an interview, Hoffman elaborates: “We’ve known for a long time that there are huge disparities in how blacks and whites are assessed and treated by the medical community. Our study provides some insight to what might contribute to this – false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. These beliefs have been around for a long time in our history. They were once used to justify slavery and the inhumane treatment of black people in medicine.”

Although Hoffman acknowledges the history of medical racism and the current disparities in assessment and treatment, she falls short by not acknowledging recent medical abuses against the African-American community. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the robbery of Henrietta Lacks’s cells still greatly contribute to African-Americans’ misgivings about medical professionals’ integrity. Hoffman later explains: “What’s so striking is that, today, these beliefs are not necessarily related to individual prejudice. Many people who reject stereotyping and prejudice nonetheless believe in these biological differences.”

But falsely believing in biological racial differences is inherently racist. Furthermore, it can result in life-threatening treatment plans. Historically, pseudo-scientific ideas have been used to justify discrimination against marginalized peoples, as Hoffman mentions. Scientists used to measure the skulls of different races to prove white superiority. Up until the 1970s, homosexuality was considered a form of insanity in the U.S. Doctors once agreed that women were naturally prone to hysteria. A medical prejudice is just that: a prejudice.

There is a misguided belief that medical professionals can be free of prejudice, simply because of their authority in the consulting room. These moments of intense vulnerability and imbalance of power between professionals and patients evidence, to the contrary, why prejudice must be confronted. In 2012, Johns Hopkins researchers reported: “Primary care physicians who hold unconscious racial biases tend to dominate conversations with African-American patients during routine visits, paying less attention to patients’ social and emotional needs and making these patients feel less involved in decision making related to their health…”

The prejudice is also visible in U.S. maternal mortality rates, which identify African-American women as the most at-risk. According to NPR, “black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health.” Of course, racial prejudice is compounded by gender bias, which has very recently come to the public’s attention. Doubly marginalized women, even if they are rich and famous like Serena Williams, have to fight to make medical professionals believe them.

In the wake of Erica Garner’s sudden death four months after her childbirth, Nurse Wrenetha Julion, Ph.D, listed ways to prevent the avoidable deaths of Black mothers. She stressed the need to call out “institutional and interpersonal racism and discrimination when we see it.” Julion also stressed the importance of improving maternal mortality care, culturally and racially diversifying healthcare fields, and reducing stress through poverty-alleviation and mindfulness techniques. Pushing back against racist pseudo-science and sexism, Black women must continue to fight for their well-being and health professionals must fight alongside them. We all must because their lives depend on it.

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About Author

Soek is a Southerner with a penchant for understanding the critical intersections of culture, race, and gender. You can find her in a bookstore between Virginia and Florida. Follow Soek on Twitter @soek_writes.

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