Category Archives: Health

The Pain of Racism

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I have been wanting to return to blogging for a while. My schedule has cleared up considerably and I’ve had all manner of observations – from tedious rants about how annoying people are, to joyful observations about how beautiful life can be, to indignant responses to our sorry political state. I had carved out some time today to finally string some coherent sentences together. But this morning, I can’t help but think about the Zimmerman verdict.

I think I’d be hard pressed to find any Black person who has grown up in this country who is really surprised by this verdict. Furious, Fearful, Heartsick – sure. But we’re not surprised. For me, some of the fury is heightened by the belief that this farce of a trial was doomed to this outcome. Some of the Sunday morning justification is that ‘the justice system does what the justice system does’ Yes. We know all about what the justice system does. And all week, the media has prepped the public for this verdict with the warning: ‘well, the prosecution presented a weak case; there just wasn’t evidence.’ Yep, those police that cared enough to do a drug test, but did not place enough value on the life of this murdered child to search for his identity, didn’t collect enough evidence; shocker. My heartsickness is compounded by the view that whatever the outcome it would be inadequate restitution for this life that was taken. And inadequate restitution for the countless lives taken before and since.

We hear all the time that racism is different today. It’s structural. It’s institutional. It’s not a guy in white hood. Yes it’s true, racism is structural and institutional – but that’s not new. And in some places in this country it is still a guy in a white hood. Ask any ten Black kids over 15 in this country, and I’ll bet: most of them will tell you it’s not a guy in a white hood that has got them looking over their shoulders. It’s the cop in a uniform (or a ‘non-uniform’). It’s the guy who follows you on the street because he thinks you’re up to no-good – or fair game. I knew it growing up in the ‘80s in Jersey City and East Orange. And Trayvon Martin knew it in Sanford, Fl. in 2012.

So, here’s the other thing that I have been stewing about this month. I heard some interesting (that’s the word I’m going with) feedback from colleagues that I am not open; I am difficult to connect with and I am not allowing myself to be vulnerable. This may not be important in most jobs, but in ministry it’s a pretty big deal. I circled the gamut of surprise, confusion, hurt, more confusion, concern, and then denial. I talked to friends who seemed equally surprised by this read. But I wasn’t dismissive, because I know it’s an issue.

Because, here’s the other thing: the other bit of news that I’ve been wrestling with this week is the story about the racial empathy gap. The study, broken down for popular consumption by anthropologist Jason Silverstein, finds that people are less able to empathize with the pain of Blacks, and in fact, believe that we feel less pain than others in similar situations. This goes for people, regardless of race, and has serious implications for things like pain management in hospitals. But it also has some serious implications for the rest of our interactions.  Part of what accounts for this perception is the belief that Blacks are hardened to pain, because we have learned to take it. This is a simplified, but accurate summary of the findings. The fact is, for some of us, this is true. When your survival (physical, psychological, emotional) depends on you being able to withstand being hurt over and over again, and continue to get up and move forward, you learn how to live with pain. But the reality of that doesn’t make it OK.

So, yeah. I’m not shocked by the Zimmerman verdict. Because my expectations are not always as high as they should be. They certainly are not as high as I have a right for them to be. And there are parts of my heart that are closed and guarded for my own self-preservation. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be opened. In the words of Marge Piercy, connections are made slowly. And as much as my activist brain agrees with the sentiment that we need to get right to work fixing the system, my spirit needs a minute. Because for real, for real – the system won’t ever be fixed if we can’t open our whole hearts. And I can’t open my whole heart unless I know that you can really feel my pain – not rush past it; not ignore it; not pretend that it isn’t there; or be relieved that I can take it.

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Breast Density Bill – NOW

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With two trips to Chicago in two months this summer, I’ve been feeling a little financial strain. So when my NOW (National Organization of Women) membership renewal notice came in the mail, I was close to making the decision to let my membership lapse. Of course, I support the ideals and the work of NOW, but I’m a full-time student with part-time employment. I need to be ruthless about my financial decisions.

Still, based on a recent survey that I completed, I was invited to the NOW-NJ Essex county chapter monthly meeting. The meeting is actually a joint meeting of the Essex county chapter, which is the “women of color and allies” (WOCA) chapter, and the NOW-NJ task force on combating racism (CRTF). What an inspiring group of women!  The small group included: college professor, radio producer, lawyer, mother, real estate appraiser, retiree, computer geek…  And in their spare time, they are building alliances to take on racism and sexism in concrete ways in NJ. So of course, I have to put my money where my mouth is.

In NJ, the group is currently working on the NJ Breast Density Bill. In the senate, the bill (S-792) is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senator Nia H. Gill (D-Essex, Passaic). In the Assembly, the bill A-2022, is sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton (District 7-Burlington), Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (District 14-Mercer and Middlesex), Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (District 37-Bergen), Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (District 6-Burlington and Camden), and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (District 20-Union).

You probably don’t know that forty percent of women have dense breast tissue, which is consistently associated with breast cancer risk. And mammography, the standard screening to detect breast cancer, misses cancer in dense breasts half the time. [from Are You  Dense?]  This is of particular concern to African American women who have denser breasts. [Visit the Black Women’s Health Imperative for more.] It’s not a very tricky mental leap to see the connections between breast density and the growing disparities in breast cancer survival. While African American women are at a lower risk for breast cancer than other women, we are more likely to die from the disease. This is in part because Black women are more likely to develop triple negative breast cancer – a particularly aggressive form of the disease, and in part because Black women are more likely to be diagnosed in later stages.

Better early detection can affect at least the latter. The NJ breast density bills can make a difference here. The bills would change current reporting to require that patients, not just doctors, are informed when a mammogram indicates dense breast tissue. In addition, it would require that health insurers cover more comprehensive ultrasound screenings, when a mammogram indicates dense breast tissue, making cancer detection difficult. What this means is that when a woman goes for a mammogram, and the test indicates that she has breast dense tissue, she will get this information and she will be advised of the increased risk of breast cancer. So individual women, and not just their doctors, will be able to make decisions about whether or not to pursue further testing. And if she does decide to have an ultrasound, this will be covered by her health insurance. Thus, a woman’s chances of earlier detection are greatly increased.

So far, the bill has passed the NJ State Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the Assembly. This is definitely on the Essex County NOW agenda. Passage of the bill would make NJ one of only a handful of states with similar bills, including Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and most recently New York.