Bioethics Blogs

Intersectionality and the Dangers of White Empathy when Treating Black Patients

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

(Originally presented at the 7th International Health Humanities Consortium meeting in Houston, Texas)

I’ve had many odd, seemingly racially motivated experiences with racially uneducated and racially insensitive doctors and nurses. From being told by one of my white physicians that I sound white when I speak, to another physician calling me “sista girl” for what seemed like 100 times during our brief 15-minute interaction, or another physician who in disbelief kept asking me “Are you sure you’ve never been pregnant? It’s very rare for a black woman your age to not have had any pregnancies. Maybe you think I mean births, when I mean pregnancies?” At the time, I was only 25 years old. Although these stories made for good laughs between my friends and I, there is one experience that I have had with the medical profession that was less comical because my doctor’s attitudes about race could have had serious effects on my health.

When I was a senior in college I discovered I had hypertension. I went to see a doctor at a family medicine facility and was prescribed a common hypertension drug. While meeting with the doctor in her office, she was very reassuring and told me not to worry that this drug has been known to work very well for black people.

But this drug did not work for me at all. Consistently my blood pressure readings were 140/120 (what is considered “normal” varies but typically 120/80 is the standard). So after taking the drug for a month as instructed, I went back to see my doctor.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.