Tips & Advice

From Dr. Liz Herself

February 28, 2023
It’s time to change how we use this word
victory signs of white and black woman

It’s time to change how we use this word

Remember how the pandemic was supposed to last 3 weeks?

In the three years since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of time to think. As a result, I think we have entered an era of higher awareness of injustice in our country, both past and present.

Mothers of modern gynecology

This 1952 painting by Robert Thom is the only known representation of Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey, who experienced the torture of gynecological experiments. Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

Black History Month and Women’s History Month

February 28th is the last day of Black History month, and March 1st is the first day of Women’s History Month. These two bridge days are now designated to commemorate Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha, the enslaved women who underwent surgeries without their consent and without anesthesia in the name of advancing medicine. (Read the blog I wrote on them here.)

The word “racist” has been used mostly to describe an identity – someone is or is not a racist, based on actions you can see them doing (or not doing). It’s time to change how we use this word. It’s time to change it to an adjective.

Systemic and Structural Racism

“Racist” as an adjective describes a statement or action (or lack of action) that springs from the embedded system of inequities and injustice in our country. I might be aware of an action or statement I make being racist, or I might be unconscious about it.

This matters because the health of my fellow human beings depends on increasing our awareness of racist ideas in action. We can be unaware of these ideas because they are “hidden in plain sight” in the form of systemic and structural racism.

Here is a great working definition of this kind of racism:

Systemic and structural racism are forms of racism that are pervasively and deeply embedded in systems, laws, written or unwritten policies, and entrenched practices and beliefs that produce, condone, and perpetuate widespread unfair treatment and oppression of people of color, with adverse health consequences.1

Monumental Error by J.C. HallmanIf racial health disparities are a new topic for you, this article is a great place to start (reference link below).

The horrific surgeries done on enslaved women in the United States in the 1800’s represent a terrible extreme of harm done to fellow human beings. But even now in 2023 in the United States, health disparities exist along racial lines. We have work to do to correct the inequalities resulting from systemic racism, in order to improve the health of all Americans.

1Systemic And Structural Racism: Definitions, Examples, Health Damages, And Approaches To Dismantling; Paula A. BravemanElaine ArkinDwayne ProctorTina Kauh, & Nicole Holm

More references: JC Hallman (Scroll down on this page):

-J.C. Hallman is the author of six books, and the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight and Guggenheim foundations. In 2017, his cover piece for Harper’s magazine, “Monumental Error,” contributed to New York City’s decision to remove the Central Park monument to Dr. J. Marion Sims.

In 2015, Hallman unearthed the first evidence ever found of Anarcha’s existence that did not come from Sims’s suspect writings. Since then, he has tracked Anarcha’s life story, from the plantation where she was born to the lonely forest where she is buried. His book, Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health, will appear in June 2023

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