After that infamous U.S. Open tennis match that took place between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka last week, the match’s terrible ending has been all anyone is able to talk about. That and the fact that what should have been an equally joyous, competitive, and historic occasion was trampled on and stolen and both Williams and Osaka were subsequently mistreated on one of the highest stages in the sport.
Because of racism. Because of misogyny. Because of misogynoir.
To say that I was pissed is an understatement. And I was tempted to stew on that anger because so many of us Black femmes understand what it feels like to be mistreated for showing genuine emotions and being able to weather abuse with “grace.” Still. Despite how displeased I was with the conclusion of that match, I still couldn’t help but still feel extremely proud of Serena–despite the bullshit. Just a year ago, Serena had just given birth…and she almost died because of it.
Imagine that. We almost lost the greatest athlete alive because America isn’t one to pause its racism and misogyny — even when it comes to healthcare. And while that is one of the more famous and most recent cases of medical racism…it’s a problem that Black women (like Serena) know all too well.
Case in point: Back in July 2017, 15-year-old Yunique Morris complained of having chest pains and like any person with common sense, she went to the doctor to have herself checked out. The doctor didn’t see anything wrong and sent her back home, chest pains intact. Twice.
She died two weeks later.
I went through a similar ordeal when I went into an ER two years ago to confirm my gallbladder needed to be removed (my family dealt with this before, so I knew what to look for), and it turned into the fight of my life, where I literally had to put on a Broadway show of pain to get the doctor to admit that something was up.
Which begs the question:
Why is it a death sentence every time a Black woman goes to the hospital?
Well. Tis’ simple:
The combinations of medical racism and medical misogyny (re: medical misogynoir) put us at risk.
Black women have been especially vocal about how the intersections of racism and misogyny (misogynoir) really affect our everyday lives. But it is never as apparent as when medicine is involved.
While normally our struggle is one that includes forced mule-ship and hypervisibility, when medicine is involved, suddenly that latter category damn near evaporates entirely.
To explain, the way that society views our Blackness (racism) makes it so that doctors assume that we are literally impervious and invulnerable to pain. The same racism that perceives 9-year-old kids as “men” and “women” and turns teens into “monsters” that should be gunned down or makes grown ass White men “fear for their lives” and result in another Black person losing theirs is the same racism that assumes that any Black person (but especially Black women) doesn’t need the same care and attention versus other [Whiter] patients and can take inordinate amounts of pain while grinning and bearing it because, you guessed it, we are “strong”, “independent”, and “don’t need anyone”.
That last sentence brings us to “The Strong Black Woman” trope.
And I can’t even really dive into that without diving into how misogyny also uniquely affects our medical visits.
If racism ensures that medical professionals think we can tolerate high amounts of pain, misogyny ensures that medical professionals will always downplay our pain or assume that we are lying about its severity because the assumption when it comes to women and individuals with vaginas and uteruses is that all of our pain literally comes back to one thing: our period.
Because women and femmes *obviously* have no redeeming value beyond our reproductive organs and our ability to give birth to more spawn for whatever reason (i.e. a thriving workforce for labor purposes aka capitalism).
Misogyny, femmephobia, and shame surrounding periods ensure that even grown-ass qualified medical professionals get squeamish when periods are brought up and purposely distort the facts around them to alleviate their discomfort in dealing with anyone who has or gets them.
In that same vein, because of purposeful misinformation around periods, including the belief that period pains and cramps are not that serious—when in fact they are as life-threatening as heart attacks—the same grown ass professionals will deem any pain related to a woman or femme as period-related (because those are our only organs apparently—the reproductive ones!) and won’t decide that the issue needs further evaluation until the patient themselves pushes for that evaluation.
I found myself in this position in 2016 when I used my performance to force the doctors into giving me an ultrasound when they wanted to give me an X-Ray—which of course, wouldn’t have found shit and would have sentenced me to an unnecessary and slow death by gallbladder.
This subject brings up two things. The first is self-advocacy and the fact that Black women have to be really good at it in a hospital setting to avoid certain death. And honestly, the subject of medical self-advocacy is one that merits further discussion outside this article. But the second leads us to another part of medicine that is especially dangerous for Black women:
Which leads us to one last question:
Why is childbirth especially harrowing? And why is self-advocacy especially needed when it happens?
I mentioned earlier that the combination of racism and misogyny sees Black women simultaneously held to withstanding an unfair pain threshold and having our pain downplayed because maintaining periods and having babies (fetuses in this case, if we’re referring to unborn spawn) are more important than our pain and lives. But Black women have an especially long and complicated relationship and history with medicine—and especially childbirth—that goes all the way back to slavery and explains why it is always so harrowing for us.
When the medical history of Black women and America at-large (i.e “The Free World) comes up, people always correctly point out how Black women had our cells taken and used (without our knowledge) for medical advancements and breakthroughs—like in the case of Henrietta Lacks. They also correctly point how Black people in general have had medical trials and experiments done on us like with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (again, without our knowledge or worse…with half-truths and half-information) in the name of “the greater good” for medicine…but really because medical racism dictated that not only were these patients invulnerable to the pain of these experiments, but that their pain didn’t matter nearly as much as what the reward would be for the medical advancement that resulted from it.
Mind you, that’s modern medical history in all its disgusting and shameful glory. But medical history has its ties to slavery too.
With Black women getting seen as nothing more than moral-destroying sexual punching bags (i.e The Jezebel) for White slavemasters to work out their frustrations on while simultaneously preserving the sexual purity of their White wives AND Black women being nothing more than mules and glorified baby incubators (you know, the kind that The Handmaid’s Tale bites most of its narrative from) for plantations that were in need of more slave labor to yield more cotton product (because, again, capitalism), it’s no wonder that Black women don’t get taken seriously during childbirth.
What slavemaster is gonna invest oodles of money, attention, and time on medicine and medical attention for “property” that they deem expendable and replaceable from the get-go?
Exactly. They wouldn’t. Because that would require them to have empathy for “property” whose humanity they stripped away to achieve a means to an end long ago.
That’s the kind of medical misogynoir that has been woven into modern medicine. That is the kind of detached bigotry that is inextricably tied to present-day medicine.
It’s the same reason fucking Serena Williams and Beyoncé, even with all their oodles of money and fame and celebrity—found themselves knocking on death’s door during and after childbirth. It’s the same reason Williams in particular had to advocate for herself to get a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) to detect blood clots that she knew were there (due to her own medical and athletic history) when the doctor was too busy (and ignorant) doing an unnecessary-ass ultrasound on her legs. And it’s the same reason why Yunique and her chest pains were sent home to die and why the same was almost done to me and my gallbladder.
It doesn’t take much for society to strip us of our humanity and reduce us only to the value of our bodies, voices, and labor—but that especially becomes aggressively clear when we step into a hospital and by extension the medical realm.
Suddenly, all that ugly racism and misogyny fueled by America’s equally fugly medical history boils to the surface and is always around the corner to deny us medical attention that should be guaranteed and we should not have to fight for.
And you know what? It is killing us.
And that needs to change.