"You won't catch me taking that poison."
"You can't trust what they give us."
"I'm super nervous about it."
"I just don't know..."
In every racial affinity group I'm in — from my BIPoC relationships group to my chat group for Inland Northwest Black folks — I hear the same anxieties being expressed over and over: Black and Brown people are wary, or outright do not trust the COVID-19 vaccines.
I say "vaccines" plural, because there are currently two vaccines being administered and three more currently in clinical trials. More than 48 million doses have been administered in the United States, yet there is a stark vaccination racial gap. More White people are getting vaccinated per capita than non-White people, particularly Black and Hispanic people. There are many reasons for this, including relative rates of poverty and access to health care. One reason, however, has nothing to do with access and everything to do with the broken trust between the medical establishment and people of color.
The conversation is happening loudly in every Black space I'm in, yet news coverage and discussions in White spaces continually misrepresent the issue. "Black people are afraid," they say. People of color are painted as "nervous," "underinformed" or otherwise subject to a fear born of ignorance about new medicine. This framing totally misses the point of what we're saying. To governments, health agencies and the medical establishment: You have abused our bodies for as long as we've been here, and we do not trust you to heal them.
I'm eight months pregnant.
My pandemic pregnancy has encouraged me to social distance strictly, so I don't see friends in person. I don't often find myself in shops or grocery stores. I bounce almost exclusively between the hospital, the apartment I share with my spouse and my partner's home. It's quite nice in some ways. When I do go out, everyone is so touch-averse that I never encounter unwelcome belly pats. Few people see me outside my home, so I don't have to bear unwanted scrutiny of my pregnant body, assumptions, unsolicited advice or comments. If anyone tries my patience in digital space, I can silence them with the click of a mouse.
But it hasn't been an easy pregnancy. I've had health difficulties that went unexplained for months. For a while my schedule was ruled by appointments with a rotating cast of OBs, midwives and specialists. For weeks my body shook, sweated, overheated, tingled, and did things that were unusual even in the tumultuous context of pregnancy. For weeks I fielded contradicting hypotheses from health care professionals and armchair diagnoses from well-meaning friends. And at each appointment, I made sure to bring the one thing I believed would ensure they would take me seriously: one of my White, male partners.
In my gut I knew I could be readily brushed off as a nervous parent catastrophizing every nuance of their first pregnancy, but an able-bodied White man with skin in the game? No one would write off his child. No one would ignore him.
I made the decision never to speak with medical personnel alone. When I made this decision, I wasn't thinking of the Tuskegee experiment or the theft of Henrietta Lacks' cells. I wasn't thinking about how modern gynecology was built on the medical torture of enslaved Black women by J Marion Sims, how the pill was developed by using Puerto Rican women as guinea pigs, or even how Black and Brown women have been targeted by government and public health entities for forced sterilization programs that started in 19th century and have lasted into the current century.
I could have been, but I wasn't.
I was thinking of every time a medical professional has brushed me off, told me my symptoms were a product of my own bad attitude, or hand-waved them away as a mental health issue (as though mental health is a less valid or important treatment pathway). I was thinking about the thousands of Black birthing parents currently dying at disproportionate rates in the United States, even when poverty and education are accounted for. I was thinking of my baby. If I could help it, they wouldn't be subject to medical prejudice before they were even born, and I'd leverage my relationships to make sure of it. Naïve? Perhaps. But it's the best I have.
And at each appointment, I made sure to bring the one thing I believed would ensure they would take me seriously: one of my White, male partners.
Personally, I am satisfied with the relative safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, and I will get it at the first opportunity. I've spent some time reading up on the research and testing process, why it seemed to be developed so quickly, and the massive international effort that brought it to the public. I'm also grateful to the hardworking medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients and assisting in the vaccine rollout across the country.
That said, if governments, medical professionals and health agencies want to see more Black and Brown people vaccinated, they need to recognize their contemporary complicity in the problem. They need to drop the doe-eyed wonder at Black suspicion and own up to their role in forming it. Start by saying, "We've screwed up. We acknowledge that medical spaces are historically and currently violent and unsafe for you. We will work with you to fix it." ♦
Jac Archer (they/them/theirs) is a local activist, community organizer and educator in the fields of diversity, equity, civic engagement and sexuality. Jac has a passion for institutional policy and making difficult concepts easily accessible.