Things They Never Tell You: Health Care
Reading Time: 6 minutes
I don’t particularly remember traumatic doctor visits as a child. Or, in fact any doctor visit as a child. I was a healthy kid. I’m sure that I was terrified of shots and probably caused a tearful scene at least once or twice, but doctors weren’t anything to be scared of because…they weren’t. Or, at least that is what most closely resembled my experience because there were never any incidents.
1. I was always admitted
2. I could ask questions
3. The only thing I needed to do in order to gain excellent medical attention was show up…with my white mother and/or white siblings
Embarrassingly, one of the first times I remember experiencing that doctor visit was recently. I have had my family health practitioner for my entire life. It’s one of those small practices. You know, the one where some of the doctors have gone to your church and been in your parent’s small group type of practices. The one where you sometimes forget to say the “doctor” part before the doctor’s name because you remember when he used to babysit you. That one. Or, at least, it used to be before it merged with a larger practice and suddenly everyone seems to be new and different.
Anyways, I went to the doctor a few months ago with a fairly fast heart rate, congestion, and what I was pretty sure was the flu. After all, I had recently started working more closely with little children and, because my office was right next to the school nurse, little children would wander into my office coughing, sneezing and snotting, and I would direct them back out to that big red sign with the first aid symbol before sanitizing my office.
After having my vitals checked, marked and told that my BMI and blood pressure were great, I was finally seen by a doctor. I had never had this doctor before (but I knew he was an old classmate’s uncle), and after what followed, I will never have that doctor again. After the normal examinations, he started asking me a few questions:
“Are you a smoker?” Never
“What about drugs?” Never
“What about alcohol?” No, not really. A social drink maybe a few times a year.
“What about exercise?” Yes.
I had already marked these down on my chart and went over them with the nurse, but I thought, okay, sure, I can do this again. I know they probably didn’t have a chance to talk, and I know Doctors try to be thorough.
“What about foods. What do you eat?” Well, my husband and I make a lot of international foods, and we try to eat a lot of greens as well.
“What about fried foods, do you eat a lot of fried foods or fried chicken?” No, I don’t eat a lot of fried foods or fried chicken.
“What about fried foods?” No.
“Hmm. Okay, what kind of greens do you and your husband eat?” We do salads, and broccoli and most recently we made some bok choy.
“Really. Bok choy.” I experienced his tone as flat, disbelieving.
And, it was then that I realized I had a choice.
There was a narrative that I was rejecting by emphasizing my “no,” to his perceived understanding of who I was/am.
My voice was challenging a pervasive and damaging narrative, and this fantasy narrative was impacting my access to equitable healthcare.
At the time, part of me wanted to chalk it up to a misunderstanding because I was desperate to conjure up a reason why this man wasn’t actively participating in a racist narrative. After all, if this man was racist, who was going to help me?
So, I did what I usually do when I am in a situation. I make a list.
I didn’t want to cause a scene.
I didn’t want to have the Flu and and I really, really just wanted to go home.
I didn’t want to count that he asked me twice about the fried food, part.
I didn’t feel like I could formulate a response that would actually matter.
I didn’t want …to be black. I wanted to hide, and the best way I knew how was by utilizing my connections to hide myself and by whitening the situation. See, I knew who he was. I knew he, though he didn’t know at the time nor would he have made the connection by looking at me and my black skin, but he would know my adoptive parents. I knew that if I mentioned someone’s name, just let my old maiden name slip out, I could “whiten” the situation. I could get out and just tell myself that the fried chicken comment was a mistake. I could forget this rumble and bumble mess of whatever thisinterrogation was.
The critic would wonder: but surely, you couldn’t knowthis. After all, what you experienced, was just a feeling. Your story is very one-side filled with your incomplete truth.
And, that is partially correct. Partially, because I did it. I whitened it by whitening me.
Let me be clear: this isn’t a feel-good, pat-myself-on-the-back-type-story.
This isn’t one of those stories that makes me feel good about how easy it was to say some version of the following back:“Yeah, bok choy. You know, when my family grew up on that chicken farm, we grew a lot of vegetables but never bok choy…”
This is a story where I take the easy way out because I had that option.
And that little phrase was all it took.
He knew who I was. He knew my family. He said my maiden name, and looked at me. I was “okay,” again. I was healthy again and I was “free to follow-up if anything got worse.”
I had a “way out,” of what I feel was discrimination and racism.
I had a “way out,” because, I feel, that all I had to do was remind him that I, too belonged in a white community because white people loved me.
I had a “way out,” because I could no longer fit the mold of whatever his preconceived ideas about me were.
As a racial justice advocate, I failed because I hit the “easy out” button rather than committing to intentionally leaning in and naming what I experienced as racism. But, I have also re-committed to saying: never again will I allow whiteness to save me, no matter how easy it may be to “right” the “wrongs” just by inserting a name.
Maybe this was a mild experience. Nobody died. I wasn’t injured or maimed, right? The “wounds” inflicted were superficial at best, discriminatory and emotionally damaging at worst, right?
But, this isn’t a stand-alone one. My “story” isn’t something that just happens as a fluke.
But, I’m hoping that I can use my experiences to demand equitable care for all minorities. Because I have access to institutions and communities that others don’t have access to, I must use my access and my voice to represent those who don’t.
Studies consistently find that black women receive less-sufficient and often inadequate health care in comparison to their white female peers. Black babies are two times more likely to die before their first birthday and black are vastly under-enrolled in cancer clinical trials. And, according to the Boston Globe, “historically, black health has been at the mercy of white power and privilege.”
According to the Huffington Post, forty percent of first year medical students and one in four residents believe that black people physically have thicker skin than white people. This absolutely holds implications for how black persons are treated by health care officials.
According to NPR, black mothers in the US die at three times the rate as white mothers. Other studies have linked this mortality rate with racism.
The historical interconnections between the medical industry and the black people are often linked back to the infamous Tuskagee study which involved doctors letting black men die from syphilis. The Henrietta Lacks case in which doctors used her cells for years without permission from her family.
The list of medical abuses against blacks are long, but it is important to realize that historical structures fundamentally inform and impact current systems and practices.
Recently, Serena Williams detailed her experience giving birth and her need to advocate for herself in order to save her own life. According to a study published in New York City for severe maternal morbidity, black women in New York City with college education are more likely to suffer severe complications during pregnancy and childbirth than uneducated white women.
So, here is what I have learned that they don’t tell you:
- YOU are your best advocate
- Some people won’t see YOU because they can’t see past your skin
- You can’t make everyone listen but you can listen to yourself and remain committed to loving yourself
- Your body belongs and deserves a space at the table
- You are not alone in your experience
- Believe in yourself
- Record and report all acts of discrimination
- Trust your body. You know your body best. You know if there is something wrong
- If you have the time, capability and space to do it, research your symptoms. Stay well-informed about your health and the medications (if any) that you are on
- Keep a log about your health and any new symptoms that you may experience
***(Side note: I am, obviously, not a doctor. Thus, these are only suggestions and should therefore be treated as such).
Damon Young at The Root, recently published an article about Serena and his family’s personal experience with the medical industry. I appreciated that the comment section included some responses on how to combat medical racism. One such suggestion included embracing black and POC doctors and nurses. Others suggested creating resource groups where black women and POC can participate in medical research and share resources with one another. Black people and POC are integral in saving one another’s lives.
While “all black groups” are often critiqued as “segregationist,” these spaces remain integral and important as safe spaces for minorities. Advocating for equitable space requires the full body. This means exhaustive work which requires immense amounts of emotional and physical and spiritual stamina, and your body will often pay the price of stress.
Be gracious to your body. Be kind to your body. Love your body. And, love yourself.
If you are reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What have your experiences been? If you are an interracial adoptee reading this, how have you handled medical health?