Updated: Apr 20
Understanding Intersectionality and the Systemic Racism Black Women Face in Healthcare
By Sara Diaz
Edited by Amanda Siow
Source: Oprah Daily
If you ask any Black woman in America if they have felt unsafe around a healthcare professional or were not taken seriously by one, most would answer with an impassioned “Yes!” Black Women are not valued as human beings by the healthcare system. The beast of systemic racism creates significant healthcare disparities for Black Women, which is further compounded by the intersectionality of race and gender. These disparities have led to worse health outcomes, higher maternal mortality rates, and an overall mistrust of the healthcare system among Black women—and it’s no wonder why.
Black Women are less likely to receive quality healthcare than any other racial and gendered group in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women.” Another report published in the Journal of Women’s Health states that “Black women are disproportionately burdened by chronic conditions, such as anemia, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and obesity.” In a space specifically designed to ensure you survive, Black women are instead constantly battling for their own survival. The healthcare system fails to fulfill its primary objective due to systemic barriers and biases that limit quality healthcare to a certain audience. These systemic barriers include racial and gender biases in healthcare providers, varying levels of healthcare quality and accessibility across economical and geographical factors, and historical trauma and mistreatment in the healthcare system. Without addressing these underlying issues, Black women will continue to face healthcare disparities and higher mortality rates.
Race isn’t the only issue at hand. Gender is another factor that plays a massive role in the medical treatment of Black women. When the two intersect, the treatment of Black Women in healthcare appears, unsurprisingly, as a gross echo of slavery. In "African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham explores the intersectionality of race, gender, and class and how these categories of identity interact to shape the experiences of African American women. Higginbotham highlights that “Black women experienced the vicissitudes of slavery through gendered lives and thus differently from slave men.” Within the oppressive system of slavery, the intersection of race and gender perpetually othered Black women outside of the social strata. Compared to white women, Black women were not seen as women because of the complexion of their skin, essentially masculinizing them. Higginbotham points out, "For black and white women, gendered identity was reconstructed and represented in very different, indeed antagonistic, racialized contexts.” There exists too a long history of Black women being taken advantage of. In 1844, Dr. James Marion Sims, the “Father of Gynecology,” performed sinister vaginal experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia or consent. The intersectional oppression of Black women in healthcare is rooted in the history of gross exploitation and abuse suffered by Black women during slavery.
Source: TODAY News
Some argue that Black women face healthcare disparities due to their lifestyle choices, such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise, rather than systemic racism. However, this argument fails to acknowledge how systemic issues of racism and discrimination also impact Black women's access to education, employment opportunities, and resources necessary for optimal healthcare outcomes. Sociologist Barbara Reskin argues that “Blacks are disadvantaged relative to whites in every aspect of their access to health care…Discrimination—especially disparate impact discrimination—contributes to racial disparities in health. Also implicated is discrimination within the health-care system and blacks' greater exposure than whites to stress, violence, and unhealthy neighborhoods, all risks to which discrimination contributes.”
Healthcare professionals discriminate too. Due to existing stereotypes, healthcare professionals often do not believe the issues that Black women raise about their health. The implicit biases of medical professionals, compounded by intersectionality and systemic racism, are yet another barrier that Black women face in getting proper healthcare treatment. According to a report published by researchers Ariel Washington and Jill Randall, their study concluded that “high levels of perceived discrimination were experienced by our sample, with the majority of [Black] women having experienced discrimination in the medical setting.” The report details the crude racism Black femme patients experience, including “being treated with less respect than others” and “doctors/nurses acting like they are smarter.” There is a perceived discrimination that Black women experience from doctors and nurses that Washington and Randall define as “a behavioral manifestation of a negative attitude, judgment, or unfair treatment toward members of a group.” The pain of Black women is always perceived as minimal. In my own experiences with the healthcare system, multiple doctors and nurses have dismissed my concerns too. Although they saw the intense bruises on my body caused by a car accident, my condition was ignored, and I was prescribed the bare minimum of all pain medications: Ibuprofen.
In professional healthcare circles, there exists a glaring lack of knowledge surrounding Black women’s health issues. This is worsened by systemic racism and implicit biases, which generate and perpetuate outrightly false notions about Black women’s health. According to a research article published in a journal by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), medical professionals are actively being taught racial biases like the false biological myth that “Black people experience less pain due to the thickness of their skin.” Yet, little seems to be done to bridge this knowledge gap despite its clearly detrimental effects on Black women—yet another symptom of intersectionality and racism. If the list never seems to end, it’s because systemic racism is pervasive.
Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins puts it best when she states, "One way to dehumanize an individual or a group is to deny the reality of their experiences. So when we refuse to deal with race or class because they do not appear directly relevant to gender, we are actually becoming part of someone else’s problem.” This denial of reality that Black women experience endangers them. Black women, who are at the intersection of race and gender, are deemed unimportant by the patriarchal institutions in society. Existing stereotypes of Black women only amplify the perceived discrimination they experience. According to Collins, “Black women encounter controlling images such as the mammy, the matriarch, the mule and the whore, that encourage others to reject us as fully human people.” These images are powerful oppressive tools that put Black women in a vulnerable position, even in spaces that are supposed to be safe for them. Collins further states, "widespread, societally-sanctioned ideologies used to justify relations of domination and subordination comprise the symbolic dimension of oppression.”
A Black woman’s identity cannot be separated into parts. It is crucial to observe intersectionality and how it plays a role in the systemic and institutional oppression that Black women constantly encounter. Black women deserve to be heard. Black women deserve to be believed. The bruises of Black women deserve to be healed.
Source: Institute for Policy Studies