In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is race an issue?

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kcoleman2016 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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That's a pretty broad question. Let me answer it in a couple of different ways. 

First of all, yes. Race is an issue because of the context of the events discussed in the book. She was a woman of color in a time where doctors were almost solely white men. There is no way that race was not an issue whatsoever. 

However, this does not mean that race was the only issue, and if the reader chooses to do so, it does not even have to be the most important issue. There were a lot of issues that contributed to the progression in TILOHL: gender, socioeconomic status, medical power structures, education, privacy vs. the greater good, and more. 

  • Henrietta was a woman patient in a medical environment, which was at the time populated with mostly men
  • Henrietta was poorer than the doctors and scientists who used her body and cells as research
  • Henrietta was the only patient with many doctors and scientists working together in a medical environment, which gave them authority
  • Henrietta was a patient, which meant that she understood less and was given less information than her doctors
  • Henrietta's privacy was violated, but her cells have helped cancer research in innumerable ways, leading to a moral dilemma

An important term for you to know here is intersectionality, which is basically the theory of how different parts of your identity interact with each other to make you who you are and inform your daily experiences. It's a really important idea because, for instance, two men who are homosexual may have similar experiences, but if one of those men is also blind, then their experiences are also very different. It doesn't make either man's life easier or harder, but it's an important part of understanding not only oneself but also how others treat a person. 

Henrietta Lacks was born into a situation where her intersectionality gave her very little privilege, or special advantages/benefits/permissions enjoyed by a particular group of people. Many aspects of her identity place her in the minority, or without privilege; she was:

  • Black in a world with white privilege
  • Female in a world with male privilege
  • Poor in a world with upper class privilege
  • Uneducated in a world with educated privilege
  • A powerless patient in a world with power privilege

TL;DR - Yes, race is an issue. But the issue is WAY more complex than a one word answer. 

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