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Reproduction of Race Science: How My Health Care Education is Teaching Racial Bias

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January 30, 2017


“You have to push harder when you give black women epidurals, you know, because black people have tougher muscles.” This is how an acquaintance of mine in nurse-anesthetist school described his recent clinical experience administering epidurals.

Where did this person learn this? Was his assumption racial bias he brought to nursing, or was the racial bias taught as a part of his health care education? How are such flagrantly racist biases circulated as “scientific truths” in the medical community so that practitioners are emboldened to state them as fact?

Easily, if my first semester in nursing school has taught me anything. Racism and race science is a part of our curriculum. For example, one instructor taught my class that “black women have a higher breast cancer mortality rate. We’re not really sure why but they think its because black women wait so long, too long, to get treatment.”

With this statement my instructor did two things. First, by claiming that the medical establishment doesn’t “really know” why black women have a higher breast cancer mortality rate, she leaves room for the possibility and thereby underhandedly suggests that there may be something inherent or genetic about black women that contributes to the mortality disparity. Second, by positing that “black women wait…too long” to seek treatment, she blames black women for the disparity and ignores the infinite factors which actually create health disparities, such as a history of racial violence in the United States, unequal access to health care, and discrimination and racism in health care itself.

In yet another nursing class, I had an instructor explain that, “Black Americans have higher rates of hypertension because they are genetically predisposed to hypertension.”

Okay, here is yet another incomplete picture and junk science presented as fact. Again, this instructor was able to essentialize and trivialize the multifactorial causes of hypertension to “simple genetics.” Not only are such claims inaccurate, they are irresponsible, because they continue to conflate race with biology.

Legal scholar and activist Dorothy Roberts explains this common conflation as race science in her latest book, Fatal Invention (2011). “…race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations…Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one,” Roberts writes (p. 4). To reiterate, race is not a biological category. You cannot determine a person’s race by examining their DNA. There is no biological basis for race. (And for everyone who just stood up because they have completed a DNA ancestry kit, I remind you, “Irish” is NOT a race, it is a nationality, and those tests do NOT determine your race. Instead, they map allele prevalence in certain parts of the world.)

Despite the evidence disproving any biological foundation of race, belief in the myth of biological races persists. In fact, there are numerous social categories that scientists continue to believe (and thus attempt to prove) have biological foundations, including gender and sexuality.

In fact, one does not have to search far for examples of how US medical science has been based in and used to uphold gendered and racialized social categories. For example, in the Victorian era, medical doctors assured upper-middle class white women everywhere that if they did not want to complete household chores, they were obviously hysterical and deranged. Hysteria was a legitimate medical diagnosis and women could be involuntarily committed to psychiatric care if they were determined to be “hysterical.”

As I previously stated though, such dangerous attitudes are by no means limited to historical example. Our own Vice President Pence gleefully supports a modern example in the use of electric shock conversion therapy. This therapy pathologizes anything other than heterosexual behavior and claims to be able to “cure” people of “homosexual illness.” What the friggidy frack?

It is disgraceful that patients suffer everyday because race science is taught as truth to medical students, such as the young nurse-anesthetist I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Poor healthcare outcomes for marginalized groups are not evidence of their “naturally” or “genetically” inferior status.  These outcomes are evidence of ineffective treatment and the assumption by their caregivers, from nurses to doctors to respiratory therapists, that marginalized groups are predestined to suffer more adverse outcomes. Race science is both bare faced and insidious, which is why it is essential — especially as the country appears to be burning down around us — that such inaccuracies are taken to task.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

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