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Black People Have a Higher Pain Tolerance!? Busting Medical Myths

Recent events breathing new life into the Black Lives Matter movement has created opportunities for mainstream media to once again cover the enduring concept of systemic racism. This includes calling out the lengthy history of mistreatment of the Black population from which the medical community is not exempt. 19th-century antics have squirmed their way into modern science, and to this day, compromise the health and well-being of Black individuals.

Myths such as “Black people have weaker lungs which are strengthened by labour/work” were used to justify slavery and long hours working in fields. A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science found that 40% of first and second-year medical students endorsed the belief that “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.” Shocking? It should be.

But that’s not all. Myths surrounding “higher pain tolerance” or supposed “less sensitive nerve endings” warranted doctors to perform nonconsensual painful operations. J Marion Sims, known as the father of modern gynecology, performed such operations on enslaved Black women from 1845 to 1849, a time before the comforts of anaesthesia. In his autobiography, Sims detailed the explicit agony and suffering these women endured. When his patients died as a result of being subjected to these unethical experiments, he placed the blame on “the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the Black midwives who attended them.”

To say this is a historical issue that we have progressed past would be a myth in itself. Current day mistreatment of Black patients still persists in many ways through disparities in treatment brought on by implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases. A study by the University of Albany School of Public Health found that white physicians find Black/low-income patients less intelligent than white/higher-income patients. Accessibility to healthcare also comes into question when addressing medical racism. Past the racial biases present in the medical professionals themselves, we have to acknowledge that the healthcare system is unequal when it comes to opportunities for access to quality healthcare in marginalized neighbourhoods.

In response to these inequalities many individuals have spoken out and searched for solutions. Malone Mukwende, a medical student at the University of London, is one such individual who created the ‘Mind the Gap’ handbook showing what disease symptoms look like on darker skin. Before this, the vast majority of medical literature catered symptom descriptions and visuals towards white skin, which lacked a coloured perspective. Mukwende says, “it is essential we begin to educate others so they are aware of such differences and the power of the clinical language we currently use.”

The topics addressed in this piece are only a fraction of a much larger and complicated issue. Racial inequality is ingrained within our current medical systems and little has changed over the years to fill this gap. Individual actions such as educating ourselves from multiple reliable sources and listening when people of colour share their experiences are ways we can contribute to overcoming systemic issues. It is imperative that we push for change, but first understand the change which we advocate for.

Blog written by: Rawdat Rouf

Rawdat Rouf is a grade 11 student and a participant in the WIS program. She enjoys generally creative activities such as sketching, writing, and graphic design. As a south asian youth, she strongly believes in continuing conversations surrounding discrimination as well as confronting our own prejudices.

Instagram: @rawdat._

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