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Racism at the Doctor’s Office- How Black Women are Harmed in the Health Care Industry

With racism and sexism working against them, black women face unique discrimination in American society. The combination of their differing social categories like race and gender, also known as their intersectionality, is often discriminated against on the basis of being a racial minority and female. This leads to oppressive, inequitable actions against them by systemic forces.

Institutional racism towards black women bleeds into all facets of society, including healthcare. Implicit bias takes a large toll on the well-being of black women as medical patients, as it is embedded within normal health care practices. Countless times, black women have informed doctors of medical issues they are experiencing and in response have been ignored, disregarded, and mocked by health care professionals. 

A widely known example of this oppression is the deliberate racism that athlete Serena Williams faced after giving birth. From experiencing blood clots her entire life, Williams had a history with blood thinners and knew immediately when she could be experiencing a pulmonary embolism. However, a day after the birth of her child when she repeatedly asked for a CT scan and a blood thinner, medical professionals around her assumed that she was confused from pain medication and thus did not take her requests seriously. After her numerous requests for a CT scan, doctors instead wanted to do an ultrasound. However, when giving her an ultrasound did nothing, they finally did a CT scan and found blood clots in her lungs, then gave her blood thinners like she initially requested. 

Serena Williams, the world-class athlete and multimillionaire, experienced this deliberate ignorance and prejudice that almost cost her her life. So, if a celebrity had to self-diagnose and plea for her voice to her heard, one can only imagine what normal black women face. 

Take Amy Mason-Cooley for example. When she was taken to USA Health University Hospital for experiencing excruciating pain and the inability to walk from sickle cell disease, her pleas of pain and direct requests were deliberately ignored by healthcare professionals, and her life was put at risk. Due to her doctor’s refusal to listen to her, she started to experience a drop in her blood count, and her requests to have a new doctor were ignored. Thankfully, a medical crew finally intervened and helped her stabilize.  

Mason-Cooley filed a complaint with the hospital, but they never got back to her. She shared her life-threatening experience on Facebook, and her post went viral due to thousands of other black women resonating.

As evident in these examples, the implicit biases and stereotypes projected onto black women by health care professionals directly harms them in medical settings. The racist stereotype of black people feeling less pain and the sexist stereotype of women’s overreaction to pain both cause black women to experience the life-threatening occurrence of racism and sexism that Mason-Cooley and Williams did every day. 

With this, the common theme of this issue is that black women are not being treated correctly nor fairly in comparison to other people of other intersectionalities. According to a study done by The American Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2019, black patients are 40% less likely than white patients to receive medication for severe pain. In fact, at the hands of licensed doctors, black women are often told that they over-exaggerate their pain or that they do not “look” sick. 

Additionally, medical professionals have been known to leave black women waiting in pain, assuming they are drug addicts, while giving immediate attention to their white peers in pain. So, it is no wonder why black women, as described in this Today article, have noted how they prefer to go to the hospital during the day rather than night, no matter how bad their pain is in the moment, due to expected racist remarks and projected bias by medical staff. 

This setting of racism is one where the health of black women is being harmed in a place where they are supposed to be safe and grow healthier. Health care facilities are supposed to be environments that heal, yet they consistently hurt black women.

The root of this detrimental issue is the racism systemically ingrained into American industries and the implicit bias of industry professionals. However, advocating for those around you and for yourself in medical settings can help combat these stereotypes and examples of racial profiling in real-time. For example, if you are in a medical setting and witness or experience instances of prejudice similar to Mason-Cooley or Williams, stand up against it. 

Due to how black women are harmed in the health care industry, being a bystander is deadly, and standing up against this oppression can be the difference between life and death. 

Gabriella is a second-year student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo majoring in Graphic Communication. She is currently involved in Her Campus as the Cal Poly SLO chapter Social Media Director, Instagram Manager, and as an editorial writer. She is passionate about writing, making art, volunteering, and pursuing a career where her creativity can be at the forefront. In her free time, you can find her attempting to surf, researching astrology, and doodling anything at any given opportunity.
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