We Need a National Black Women's Health Agenda

by Tené T. Lewis

From childhood obesity, to racial profiling, from school segregation to a lack of opportunities for men and boys of color, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have found ways to creatively spotlight many of the major concerns confronting the African-American community and, most importantly, create a national conversation around these issues. Remarkably however, throughout all of these conversations around race and/or health, there has been a noticeable lack of attention to African-American women, and in particular, their health. Which raises the question: How is it possible to have an African-American woman on one of this country’s most visible platforms and not have a serious dialogue about black women’s health?

Perhaps because she herself projects such a strong image as a physically fit and healthy woman (biceps anyone?), many in the general public may be less aware of the pressing health concerns facing the majority of African-American women throughout the country. By Obama’s age (50), over half of African-American women are obese and 47 percent have hypertension. African-American women aged 45-54 also have two to three times the rate of diabetes, increased levels of breast cancer mortality, higher rates of hysterectomy and a 60 percent greater likelihood of death from any causethan white women in the same age group. Funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have special initiatives focused on childhood obesity and the health of boys and men of color. Yet there is no outcry, no movement, and few national initiatives to support black women’s health.

While this is sad, it is, unfortunately, not all that surprising. As outlined most recently by Kimberlé Crenshaw in response to My Brother’s Keeper, discussions about “race” are most often about African-American men. Similarly, dialogues about “gender” most frequently center on white women. Consequently, African-American women’s unique concerns are rarely heard. Scholars refer to this as the “intersectional invisibility” faced by African-American women. This invisibility can be emotionally painful and is unjust by most standards. However when it comes to health, it can also be fatal. This is the primary reason why we need a larger platform for conversations about black women’s health.

Much of the lack of attention to this issue may be rooted in the fact that women, of all races, are typically busy taking care of everyone else — children, husbands, others in their community. And in the African-American community –a community experiencing disadvantages– this natural pattern may be exacerbated. Regina Benjamin, the former surgeon general, who resigned in 2013, is an African-American woman who often spoke about the preventable illnesses that affected her immediate family (AIDS, lung cancer, stroke) and the health concerns of the poor, rural community that she served in Bayou le Batre, Ala. (access, difficulty with co-pays). But she rarely spoke about her own health, or the unique health concerns facing African-American women in a substantive way, except to urge black women not to let fear of ruining their hairstyles get in the way of exercise. Both Obama and Benjamin project images in line with the “BlackSuperwoman,” the invulnerable caregiver who is a pillar of strength for her family and her community. But who cares for the caregivers?

Photo Credit: K2 images / Shutterstock.com

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