What Color is Pain?

Written by Victoria Van Drost 


Slavery is considered one of the darkest periods in American history. Its ugliness is often masked by modern faith that slavery’s racist foundations have since evolved into universally equitable societies. Institutionalized ideologies that once deemed slaves only three-fifths of a human being have evolved into doctrines that prize equality regardless of race. Whether or not this is necessarily true is subjective, but one belief that has avoided evolution is the belief that Black people experience pain differently than their white counterparts. 

It is important to understand where this belief comes from. Yes, it comes from slavery, but more specifically, it comes from Dr. Samuel Cartwright. A physician from the Antebellum period, Cartwright firmly believed that there were fundamental anatomical and physiological differences between the Black and white man. Through his treatment of slaves, Cartwright coined the disease “Dysaesthesia Aethiopis”, which he believed “caused Negroes to destroy and waste things and to create disturbances with their overseers and fellow servants without cause or motivation. Furthermore, it made them “insensible to pain when subjected to punishment.” Such speculations on slave health popularized the belief that perception of pain is inextricably linked to skin color; some still believe that since Black people have endured so much throughout history, they are able to withstand more pain. This could not be further from the truth. Black people, especially in the United States, suffer from generational trauma due to slavery to this day. If anything, Black people suffer more from pain because they have endured so much of it. James Simms, renowned in the Western medical tradition as the father of gynecology, experimented on Black women because “Negresses…will bear cutting with nearly, if not quite, as much impunity as dogs and rabbits”. The argument that pain is felt differently because of physiological and anatomical differences has been thoroughly discredited and is completely false.  It remains only a poor justification for the inhumane treatment of Black people in America. 

When brought into a medical facility, Black people are less likely to be treated for pain, often because their pain is simply not acknowledged. They are less likely to be prescribed pain medication, this has been theorized to be due to inherited racial bias. But why? Why deprive black patients of pain-relieving medication and treatment? Some attribute such disparities to warped societal perceptions of black men, who are stereotyped as dangerous, physically threatening, and tough. This, unfortunately, plays a large role in the care given to them because their physical appearance portrays the inability to feel pain, or that they have a higher pain tolerance and therefore do not need the same attention [1].

So, how do we fix this? Do we integrate more Black physicians into the medical field to provide equal care? Do we address academic inaccuracies and educate current and future physicians that Black people do not experience pain differently than white people? Both are necessary. We need more empathic and understanding physicians, especially those who serve historically underrepresented populations. We need more physicians that treat these populations with care and dignity, and more physicians from such marginalized communities, to improve trust and communication in healthcare. . We have to teach current and future physicians that there are no physiological differences between races, and that every human being has the same medical tendencies. Modern racial health disparities are a continuation of slavery, and they too must be abolished.

Edited by Agnes Han

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