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Self-Advocacy and the Health of Black Women

Amid a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black and brown individuals, and a national reckoning over racism, people are now forced to pay attention to the shocking realities of racial inequities that damage the health of people of color in America.

Systems of discrimination and inequality generally intervene in women’s access and quality of care and medical assistance. Oftentimes, judgements of morality get in the way of women receiving healthcare, especially when it comes to reproductive healthcare and healthcare for plus-sized women. Systems of medicine are also guilty of actively marginalizing women by dismissing their symptoms. 

I speak from personal experience in saying that for Black women, there’s something deeply unsettling about being in a doctor’s office. There’s an elusive discomfort that’s difficult to describe, yet somehow we know it’s unique to us. For some, it makes us question whether we should even go to the doctor at all. And though it may be true that everyone feels some level of discomfort in these spaces, the difference is this: being a Black woman puts us at a disadvantage in every arena of life —and at this point, many of us have come to accept it —  but this is one place where we truly can’t afford it. This is the one place where it can mean life or death.

Equity is a central issue in healthcare as inequalities reveal the larger aspects of power, oppression, and discrimination that ground our understanding of circumstances like poverty, disadvantage, oppression, and poor health.

Developing skills in listening to and working with local communities would require significant changes in the quality and distribution of healthcare. That said, a general commitment to human rights may not provide the kind of equity gains that are necessary in women’s health. Rather, a commitment to eliminating specific inequities, including gender inequities, should be a central theme in healthcare ethics. Attention to the intersections of gender and race within the medical field has the potential to deliver direct health benefits to Black women. 

Even with this action plan however, Black women are still vulnerable in a doctor’s office, so what can she do to advocate for herself in a system that doesn’t pay attention to her?

Here are three questions a Black women should have in her back pocket to ensure that you’re getting the best care:

1. Have you had the proper informed consent conversation with your healthcare provider?

You have the right to ask questions, discuss details about the suggested treatment and viable treatment alternatives, all while feeling comfortable enough doing so, in a judgement-free setting.

2. Are my health concerns being fully addressed?

You should be able to leave your doctor’s office with the confidence knowing that your health concerns are being investigated appropriately.

3. Am I my own biggest advocate?

Your care relies heavily on how you express your symptoms and listen to your instinct. There is no medical textbook or doctor in the world who is going to understand how you experience your own symptoms better than you. Intuitively, if something feels ‘off’ to you, it probably is, and it is time for doctors to listen.

Remember that when it comes to healthcare providers, you have options. If you’re being repeatedly dismissed by your doctor, or have been prescribed medications to mask your symptoms — rather than get to the root cause —  it may be time to explore different avenues.

The system is flawed, but with knowledge comes power. As a Black woman, it’s important to understand how we’re feeling and communicate our symptoms as clearly and accurately as possible. Listening to our instinct is critical — don’t be afraid to ask questions, push further and seek out all of your options. In a system stacked against us, being our own advocate is the most effective tool we have to receive the care we deserve.

— Rachael Bailey, Intern

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