Check Your Privilege

 Topic: Check Your Privilege: The Healthcare Discrepancy White People Know Nothing About


This week, we will be discussing the disparity in healthcare access and outcomes between black and white people, in particular the systemic and institutional discrimination against black women in the medical field.

Apart from a few hiccups, like most white women in America, I have usually been well-cared-for medically. I wanted an IUD, and I got one. When I had a kidney infection, they practically threw Vicodin at me (Which did nothing for the pain. It just made me sleepy.) The various discomforts and occasional pains I have suffered in my life have been dealt with promptly and with compassion. I also witnessed the way other white people were treated: When my ex-husband fell off a ladder while working, they gave him so many narcotics that he became addicted and ended up losing his job and kind of ruining his own life. Overall, my experience with medical professionals has been mostly positive, and I usually trust them. I certainly never felt like I needed a witness when I went to the doctor.

In contrast, we find the experiences of my platonic lesbian domestic partner (whom I often refer to as my wife), Courtney, a black woman my own age. Just since I met her, she has gone to urgent care with a broken bone and been sent home with no pain relief of any kind, no cast, just a sling and a recommendation to take ibuprofen. She has been told to “ice it” or even to “get in touch with your emotions to address where the pain is coming from.” She was in a car accident over eleven years ago that injured her entire spine and did not get any kind of prescription pain relief for over ten years. Think about that for a second: she went a full decade with a damaged spine and received no conventional medical treatment. Understandably, she turned to a combination of massage and street drugs to alleviate the pain she was suffering. Nobody even bothered to take an image of her back, to see where the damange was and how to treat it. When she found out that all of her teeth are dead due to a genetic disorder and was told by her oral surgeon to consult with her primary clinic for pain relief, she was turned away for being “drug-seeking.” She once went to urgent care because of some uterine pain, and the attending physician subjected her to a painful examination before basically telling her that he could do something about the situation, but he was not going to. She has actually asked some of her white friends, including me, to accompany her to the offices of medical professionals so that somebody can be her advocate and ally.

Her experience is not unique; Courtney’s mother has similar stories. This is all down to systemic racism in the medical field. Disparities of access and outcome for women of color have been heavily researched and documented, and have been demonstrated over and over again, across years of changes and even in the face of slight superficial improvements. Doctors and nurses appear to make the false assumption that black women do not feel pain the way white people do, or that they are exaggerating the pain in order to obtain narcotics. They also seem to believe that all black people are jumkies or otherwise prone to drug-seeking behavior. (Most of the junkies I personally have met are white people.) A 2016 survey of white medical students and residents found that half of them expressed false beliefs about physiological differences between races, including beliefs that black skin is thicker than white skin and that black people have a higher pain tolerance than white people. Black American women are the most under-served demographic medically. They receive the lowest standard of care, up to the point of being completely medically neglected. They are almost never given pain relief, and are often mis-diagnosed or otherwise medically mistreated. Black women have shorter life expectancies and a higher rate of death related to childbirth. It is clear that the system is failing them, in multiple ways.

There is one thing white people can do: Use your privilege to influence the medical professionals who treat your black friends. Go to appointments with them. Write letters to clinics and office managers. Call out racism when you see it. Be willing to have those hard conversations with friends and strangers alike to address racist behaviors or ideas. It may be briefly socially awkward to point out racist words or actions, and there may even be social consequences, but it is worth it to know that you are at least trying to help. Use your white privilege to assault the system that confers it upon you, because nobody should have their pain dismissed by a nurse or a doctor. Access to health care has been established by the United Nations as a human right, and there is no excuse to be racist in this day and age. It just makes you sound like an asshole.

Would you go to an appointment with a black friend and call out the doctor on their racism?


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