As protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd continue across the country and world, as name after name gets added to the list of Black people murdered by police, as the number of lynchings increase and are dismissed by police as suicides, as police resign rather than hold each other and the system that perpetuates their violence accountable, as police continue to get away with murder and systemic racism continues to take lives, as people rightfully call for the defunding and abolition of the police, as the coronavirus continues to take lives–taking Black lives “at almost three times the rate as white people”–and as I’m working my way through chemo, I’ve been thinking about racism and cancer. How racism, which IS a public health crisis, is like cancer. How racism can actually cause cancer. How racism affects Black cancer patients.
Have you ever heard of Cancer Alley? It’s a real place. In the US. There, “the risk of cancer from air toxicity is 50 times the national average. The highest of anywhere in the US.” And the residents are mostly Black. Racism doesn’t always look like a police officer murdering a Black person. It also takes the form of redlining and other practices that put minorities in dangerous areas, areas like Cancer Alley where nearly every household has cancer or has lost someone to cancer. Racism can also be seen in a government that knows about Cancer Alley and allowed it to happen, allows it to continue.
Have you seen that meme that goes, “If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired some people are of experiencing it”? That fatigue can actually break the body. Scientists have found that the experience of racism acts as a chronic stressor that creates inflammation–which can lead to disease and an increased susceptibility to illness–in people of color. And then racism on a systemic level makes it harder for people of color to access healthcare and insurance and receive the same level of care as white people.
In 2019, the American Cancer Society reported that “African Americans in the US still have the highest death rate and lowest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group for most cancers.” The National Cancer Institute says that Black women “are much more likely than white women to die of breast cancer,” that Black people “are more than twice as likely than whites to die of prostrate cancer and nearly twice as likely to die of stomach cancer,” and that Black men experience higher rates of lung cancer and death from lung cancer than other racial and ethnic groups.
But racism also denies Black people the compassion that white people take for granted when things like cancer strike. I was recently told this story: A white worker with multiple warnings and write-ups for performance/behavior issues turned in a Black worker for having his phone on him while on the clock. The Black man had his phone on him because his wife has cancer. The Black man was fired for this, and it’s safe to assume his wife lost her health insurance as a result. During cancer. The white man still works for this company, his own disobedience overlooked and therefore accepted by management. That’s racism. Rules exist, but their enforcement isn’t equal. The white person is allowed to break and bend them more often, with fewer consequences. Where was this white man’s and management’s compassion?
Sometimes racism looks like rules and hiding behind them. Sometimes it looks like a post in support of law enforcement during demands for police accountability or a call for unity when those who are oppressed have had enough. Calls for unity almost always stem from a desire for comfort, quiet, and a return to the status quo and rarely are motivated by a desire for actual change. Sometimes racism takes the form of the “peacemaker,” who’s silent when Black people are getting murdered but steps in when Black people demand justice.
Racism, like cancer, destroys the body. It can be passed through generations. It breaks the social bond, breaks families, breaks hearts. White people, it is our legacy, and our problem. Let’s call it out. Let’s shine a light on it wherever it festers, even when it’s in our own hearts and the hearts of those we love. Let’s stop it. Because Black lives matter.