Racism has seeped its way into every aspect of our society. You can’t walk into a store, school, or workplace without feeling its nasty hold. Now, it’s coming into the light that racism has taken its hold in the field of medicine – specifically taking its fight up against pregnant Black women. And it has been happening for hundreds of years.
Marion Sims, nicknamed the “Father of Gynecology,” experimented on enslaved Black women in the 1800s. Using their bodies, Sims performed multiple surgeries on the same women repeatedly. One of their names was Anarcha, who has been called the ‘ Mother of Gynecology”. The surgeries performed on Anarcha, although painful, did not involve anesthesia. And although Anarcha was vital in Sims’ discovery of techniques to help women, she was treated as a worthless piece of property. Sims is quoted as describing a “stupid thing” that he performed on Anarcha during one procedure in his autobiography, then further stating, “…I thought she was going to die… After she had recovered entirely from the effects of this unfortunate experiment, I put her on the table, to examine.” He would justify these experiments as “helping” to cure the women he was treating, while reducing Black women to lab rats that had unlimited pain tolerance.
However, Sims wasn’t the only doctor experimenting on Black women’s bodies. In the 1800s, it was inhumanely popular to perform experimental surgeries on Black women without anesthesia and then practice the surgery on white women with anesthesia. This method was justified by British doctor Benjamin Moseley who determined that “Black people could bear surgical operations much more than white people” in 1787.
Today, we can see the influence of these inhuman practices and ideals in modern day healthcare. Although society has progressed from Jim Crow laws, systemic racism is so deeply embedded into our society it has prevailed in the form of implicit attitudes of bias. Perception Institute describes implicit bias as, “when we have attitudes towards people and associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge.” Often, these attitudes present themselves in medicine.
Subconscious biases allow for racial and ethnic minority women to be subjected to less accurate diagnoses, less pain management, and worse clinical outcomes. According to the CDC, Black, Native American, and Latina women are 2-3 times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes. Ahsharah Allen, an Atlanta-based 40-year old massage therapist and former Advanced Paramedic knows this from experience.
“Every time I have been hospitalized my knowledge was dismissed, my feelings were just emotions,” says Allen who is a mother of six. Recalling the time she was pregnant with her son she says, “I had a pulmonary embolism [and] the nurses and doctors joked and laughed how I would be dead by the end of the week. I couldn’t breathe and could barely walk. I took my IV out of my arm in the hallway.They laughed as I struggled. It was a horrible scene. It was surreal. And to this day it makes me sad.”
Unfortunately, many Black women can relate to Allen’s feelings. Here’s the cycle. Black women, who are discriminated against based on race and gender, face wage gaps and experience higher unemployment. After having higher rates of poverty due to these inequities, the social and environmental stressors Black women face alters their genetic structure making us more prone to chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, and elevates our stress response generationally.
Since we are disproportionately low-income, Black women typically receive low quality healthcare and less accessibility to resources. Ironically Black women are the most at risk regarding health, but are the ones that receive the corrupt treatment. Then, after the world has already discriminated against us, we go into labor to be unheard and mistreated where we are supposed to be taken care of. When we voice our pain, it’s ignored because of the misconception that we can “ take it.” Finally, when we speak up to protect ourselves and vocalize our pain because we are done “taking it,” we are labeled as the “angry Black woman.” Thus, continuing the negative stereotype which causes Black women to experience wage gaps, higher unemployment, and social inequities. Then the cycle repeats itself and passes from generation to generation.
Deemed as overdramatic and more tolerant to pain, many Black women seek out Black doctors, with the most sought after speciality being obstetrics and gynecology. Adrienne Hibbert, a woman who started an online website to find Black doctors in Southern Florida reported, “the No. 1 call that I get is for a Black OB/GYN.” Hibbert herself sympathizes with this hunt after finding herself not feeling secure with her white male obstetrician as a Black woman pregnant for the first time. She wanted, “someone who understands my background…the foods that I eat…my upbringing.” Not only do Black physicians provide a shared understanding of culture, Black women report having more trust with Black doctors and a better sense of security.
For years, Black women have been overlooked and underestimated. So this is all to say, don’t let people discourage you. The medical field needs more representation to offer Black women who feel alone and unheard. Black women currently make up 3% of the medical field so educate yourselves and know your worth. Black girls are not just susceptible to the“stupid things”done to us in history. If you want to be a surgeon, go for it. If you want to be an OB/GYN, I believe in you. If you want to be a physician’s assistant, you have the power to do so. The sky’s the limit and you can go higher.
If you are looking to get involved in medicine, look into these programs and scholarships:
- Black Girl, White Coat : a Youtube Channel that offers advice and videos of Black women’s real-time journeys as they advance in medicine. This organization also provides a mentorship program that partners young black and Hispanic girls interested in medicine with MDs. This organization also offers multiple scholarships. In order to be considered, you must met the following requirements:
- 16 years old or older
- Must identify as African-American or Hispanic
- Must have plans to pursue a healthcare focused career
- Association of Black Women Physicians awards over $800,000 every year to medical students
- Black Girl Health: an organization that promotes the health of women of color through “education, engagement, and empowerment”. Young girls can participate in their community workshops and then go on to be ambassadors in college.