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White Supremacy and My Broken Bones

By Gordon J. Ebanks, Crimson Opinion Writer

Earlier this month, what the National Weather Service deemed a bomb cyclone downed about two and half feet of snow in Massachusetts and other parts of the Northeast. At Harvard, people made snowmen, stood on a frozen Charles river, and basked in what The Crimson called a “foot of icy fun.”

I broke one of the bones in my feet jumping over a particularly large puddle.

Not yet realizing that one of my bones was broken, I limped along Cambridge’s streets and carried on with my night, thinking my foot had been merely sprained. I had never broken a bone before and convinced myself that the pain was just another example of teenage melodrama.

When the doctor relayed the results of my x-ray the next morning, I was dumbfounded. Given my botched landing, my inability to walk on my left foot, and the considerable pain I was feeling, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that I had, in fact, broken a bone. And yet, it was. I was blind to the fact that my body couldn’t handle everything, and that, in some tangible ways, I was delicate. I had somehow adopted the belief that my pain didn’t matter, and that however bad an injury felt in the moment, I could always “walk it off.” For the first time in my life, I had proof, in black and white film, that I had been critically misled.

I know I am not alone.

Black people in America learn from a young age that our pain isn’t real — that however badly we are treated, our bodies can weather it. In the media’s seemingly never-ending loop of footage featuring Black people being beaten by police officers and dramatizations of enslavers whipping the enslaved, the main takeaway is always our resiliency as a people, the teflon twin of the American Dream.

The evidence of this wide-reaching lie is heartbreaking. Multiple studies have shown that American doctors believe Black patients feel less pain and under-prescribe pain medication relative to what they would recommend for a white patient suffering from the same injuries. One 2016 study revealed that 40 percent of first and second-year medical students thought that the skin of Black people was quite literally thicker than that of white people. Implicit biases like this have made it so that Black people receive systematically worse care on average compared to white Americans. These biases, which have been immortalized by the barbarism of the Tuskegee Experiment and medical abuse of Henrietta Lacks, have no doubt led to thousands of preventable deaths and are felt today in the cruel disproportionality of maternal mortality among Black women.

The organ that’s meant to protect our bodies from exposure to the outside world and all its dangers has become a literal target on our backs. Something for us to hate and for everyone else to fear.

The tragic irony of these racist lies is that Black people actually die sooner than white people, and that from heart disease to asthma, African Americans also get sick at higher rates. I truly believe that if Black people weren’t three times more likely to get Covid-19 than white people, the first year of America’s Covid-19 response would have been taken far more seriously and been on par with that of other industrialized countries. The millions of years cumulatively lost by Black Americans is time which the families of those that are dead can never get back.

When this moral catastrophe is understood in the context of American history, the lines between the dots quickly connect. It’s no accident that the response to the crack epidemic in Black communities was an increase in policing and harsher sentences, while the response to the opioid epidemic is not only more medical aid to affected communities but also a righteous effort to punish those who were responsible for manufacturing the crisis, as opposed to blaming the victims.

The evidence is clear and overwhelming: Black people’s health and wellbeing is not only ignored but attacked in this country because our institutions don’t feel the need to protect Black lives the same way they do white ones.

Yet, in spite of all this, there are signs of progress. I was heartened by the courage of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles last year when they put their wellbeing before competition, even despite the immense backlash they faced from people who seemingly wouldn’t care if either one were to injure themselves or face mental health consequences for going beyond their limits.

My hope for the future is that the arts and academia accurately capture the pain and tenderness that Black people are capable of feeling as human beings. That American institutions move urgently to close these disparities in healthcare and quality of treatment for Black people. That non-Black people never confuse their pity and patronization for love and care. And my wish for Black people is that we take our health and wellbeing more seriously than we have been taught to, and that we understand the beauty and strength that lies in our inevitable fragility.

Gordon J. Ebanks ’24, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

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