Medical myths about Black people have lingered since the 19th century. Once used to justify slavery and miscegenation, the harmful practices are used now to limit Black people’s access to quality health care and pain relief. The racist assumption that Black people are impervious to pain is based on myths of difference that are grounded in white superiority and Black dehumanization. The false beliefs include erroneous claims linked to stereotypes that have been used to justify the unethical treatment and suffering of Black patients.
Racial bias about biology leads to race-based medical myths that have claimed erroneously that “Black skin is thicker than white skin,”; Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s which results in them feeling less pain,”; “Black people age more slowly than white people,”; “Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than white people,” and “Black men are genetically predisposed to be gifted athletes.”
Black people have every reason to be skeptical and suspicious of a health system that has a long history of experimentation without consent, undertreated pain, agonizing procedures without anesthesia, misdiagnosed illness based on racial stereotypes and malpractice resulting from a failure to believe or target the symptoms Black patients report.
Most health differences between Black people and white people are not genetic; they are socioeconomic. Black people are more likely to be uninsured and therefore they have less access to care. And when they do have access to a regular primary doctor, they are rarely referred to specialists. Black people suffer because of the inequality or discrimination they have witnessed or experienced in health care settings, where they are treated poorly, if treated at all.
Suffering in silence becomes another myth made normal as Black people contort themselves to be seen, listened to and believed. For example, artist-activist Michelle Browder has dedicated her life’s work to exposing the harms of gynecological surgeries performed on young Black slaves without anesthetic. Partly out of evil, partly out of an assumption that they could tolerate the torture of excruciating pain, Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy – who Browder coined the (Mothers of Gynecology) – were subjected to racial violence disguised as medical care at the hands of J. Marion Sims.
Culturally competent health care, which includes everything from assessment to diagnosis to treatment, will require that doctors recognize, and resist race-based implicit bias, and treat all patients by upholding the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Attributing pain tolerance to the amount of pain and trauma inflicted on someone is not an adequate measure of how much it hurts. Especially when we know that racism, not race, often over-determines the medical outcomes of Black people.
As Alicia Wallace reminds us, “Race is a social construct, not a medical condition.”
I’m Robin Boylorn, until next time…keep it crunk!
Written by Robin Boylorn
Edited by Brittany Young