(But Will They See Me)
There was a time that doctors appointments were quite the highlight for me. Weird, I know. However, back then, time was not a luxury and with past my experiences in this country and back home in Guinea, there was a common family mentality. This was that you went to the doctor for one of two reasons, 1) the required physicals and 2) back to school vaccines. The doctor’s office meant you were allowed to stay home from school, so essentially any other reason would have to be that you were on the verge of death. In both cases though, Dunkin Donuts or some other source of outside food was a guarantee with a side of Maury, Judge Judy, or Dr. Phil playing on tv in the waiting area. This made each visit almost a full course meal. I’d sit there with a fractured understanding of it all, while pretending for my mother’s sake to not really be interested in all the gross, mature, and problematic details taking place on national television. I felt grown but the most exciting part of this experience, was the moment I would be told the doctor was ready to see me. Back then, I felt special. I knew when I walked in that room I’d be the center of focus and care. I placed so much pride in never having a problem (I wasn’t scared of shots), but also having all the problems, (I’d mentioned any pains I might have experienced and asked a ton of questions.) And then, satisfied, I left.
I can’t pinpoint for sure when this changed; many of us, black women, probably couldn’t. And in some cases, didn’t even have that initial positive experience at all. Here is what I do recall. I started seeing this one doctor around 10 years old. She was this tall, beautiful, skinny, dark-skinned black woman with a thick french accent. She felt familiar and comfortable and simultaneously so powerful. I don’t quite know how to describe it but I wanted to be her, to wear that white coat the way that she did. But as time passed all of these aspects began to fade away. Going to see her became a source of nervousness and discomfort.
Things kinda happened both fast but also in an odd and gradual way. . And then, I went to boarding school. And it continued. I struggled a lot my freshman year, mentally, emotionally and physically in a place where I was and in a way had to become hyper aware of my blackness. This hyperawareness stemmed from in part my experiences at the health center where the demographic was essentially white, female, white, and old. I was grilled about where I should be or what class I was missing with little to no real acknowledgement of any physical pain I might be feeling. And then, when I finally got the courage and encouragement to, I sat across from and tried to explain my feelings to a woman who could in no way understand my experiences and seemed oddly uncomfortable and surprised by my emotions. Then, I would go home for breaks and everytime between those breaks, I grew taller, my boobs got bigger, my hips got wider, my thighs got thicker, and my stomach got fatter. And everytime I saw my old doctor during these breaks the time she spent asking me how I was doing, or performing the usual body check-ups, decreased while she would always spend more time mentioning the weight I gained or maintained followed by questions associated with it. And then, dissatisfied, I left. Feeling like I was never seen in the first place.
To be clear, I didn’t understand what was happening in the way I do now. I’m still experiencing it while trying to understand it all. We are still experiencing it. I began to see what I had experienced as a wider issue first through hearing about similar feelings of discomfort and invisibility from friends, family, and even celebrities. Then, my senior year I took a class where while doing a project on reparations, I fell upon the topic and history of racism and violence against black women, in particular, in terms of medicine and reproductive health services. I was beyond surprised reading some of the things I did and for a long time I wondered how this issue that continues to kill black women and children everyday has only barely and just recently coming to a wider view of attention.
It started to make more sense for me when I began to consider the unique and intersectional positioning of black women in society. On one hand, as women that are black we were left behind in feminist movements that gained more traction and had the conversations they needed to have excluding and often using us as tools to eventually gain better treatment professionally, politically, socially, and of course medically. On the other hand, as black people who were women we struggled to break through the male dominated conversations. In many ways, black men often contributed to the harm done to black women in terms of sexual, mental, and reproductive health and there was no space for black women to have and own these conversations in safety , validity, and camaraderie. Those who forced and created the space were often ignored, criticized, or ostracized for potentially betraying their kind and contributing to the harmful images of black communities and specifically black men.
One example of these people was Toni Morrison. Reading her book The Bluest Eye this past semester was what made me decide to create this column. There was a particular scene in the book, one that even without knowing what the book is about remains powerful and relevant: When giving birth Pauline Breedlove, a black woman, remembers a moment where her doctor tells the women around the room, (most likely nurses and his students that), “Now these here women you don’t have trouble with. They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses.” I managed to write a whole research paper based on this. And while my professor seemed impressed by how much this stood out to me and became a springboard, the moment wasn’t one that just stood out, it felt personal and to connect it to other themes felt fluid because it was fluid. Nothing about this topic, surrounding black pain and bodily treatment in medicine and otherwise, or any topic centering on black women exists in a vacuum. I was shocked reading this scene in part due to my lack of shock about a medical professional saying such a thing back then and similarly veiled things today. In many ways I had experienced it. Mrs. Breedlove and her body were hyper-exposed and visible to be dictated and labeled by the doctor whose position of power and impressions completely silenced her and hid her true self and emotions.
Black women in history are hyper exposed in a place where different systems continue to imprint on us and outside narratives continue to be created and believed. These narratives, ones that continuously deny us the privilege of pure and relevant pain, anger, and feelings also make us invisible and vulnerable. Vulnerable, especially through the lack of care for our wellbeing and safety. And as a result vulnerable in a system that should be a human right. I shouldn’t have to be nervous and feel like I have to prepare myself emotionally when going to see a doctor or therapist. I shouldn’t have to wonder if I will actually be SEEN when I’m told “The doctor will see you now”.