White Privilege Seems Like An Abstract Concept, Until You Remember It Kills Black People

Damon Young/VSB
Damon Young/VSB

My mom was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in November of 2012. At that point, she was given four to six months to live. But she held on for an entire year, not succumbing to the disease until November of 2013.


Her diagnosis, while devastating, was not a surprise. She was a smoker for over 30 years; from the late 70s until 2008, when she quit cold turkey after she learned she had COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and was told, in very clear terms, that if she continued smoking, she wouldn't last a year.

And while her health did improve after she quit, between 2008 and 2012, she made numerous trips to doctor's offices, emergency rooms, and hospitals. The majority of them related to this excruciating back pain she'd often experience. Sometimes she'd hear she needed to stretch and exercise more. (Which she did.) Sometimes she'd get advice on her diet. (After she quit smoking, she gained a noticeable amount of weight.) Sometimes she'd be advised to take a certain number of Advil. And then, sometimes she'd be advised to have equally excruciating procedures done on her. The most excruciating being steroid injections into her back and a spinal tap — both of which intensified her pain instead of alleviating it.

And then, after four years of this, she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

It's been two and half years since my mom passed. And a lingering question about the last few years of her life still persists in me. A question I can't escape:

Why wasn't her cancer found sooner?

I am (obviously) not a doctor, but it would seem like this could (and, perhaps, should) have been detected before it reached stage four. She was seen by doctors regularly, had a history that would seem to suggest lung cancer was a possibility, and had the type of back pain also often associated with that type of cancer. Of course, I'm very aware an earlier detection could — and probably would — have had the same result. But this acknowledgement doesn't make that question go away.

At this point, you might be wondering how this connects to race, racism, and White privilege. Well, although White privilege is often dismissed as an abstract and academic term with no basis in reality, it doesn't exist without the perpetual cultural, social, political, and legal reinforcement that White people's feelings, thoughts, desires, and opinions matter more than the feelings, thoughts, desires, and opinions of non-White people. (Black people, specifically.) This phenomenon also affects how physical pain and discomfort are assessed and treated. White pain is just taken more seriously than Black pain; a fact proven in numerous studies, including this one:

From The Washington Post: 

African Americans are routinely under-treated for their pain compared with whites, according to research. A study released Monday sheds some disturbing light on why that might be the case.

Researchers at the University of Virginia quizzed white medical students and residents to see how many believed inaccurate and at times "fantastical" differences about the two races — for example, that blacks have less sensitive nerve endings than whites or that black people's blood coagulates more quickly. They found that fully half thought at least one of the false statements presented was possibly, probably or definitely true.

Moreover, those who held false beliefs often rated black patients' pain as lower than that of white patients and made less appropriate recommendations about how they should be treated.


Do I know, with a 100% certainty, that my mom's lung cancer could and should have been found earlier? No. And do I know, with a 100% certainty, that if my mom happened to be White, her pain would have been treated earlier as a dire and life-threatening concern instead of an annoyance some yoga and a carb-free diet would stem? No, I do not. But I do know that if her race affected her treatment and, ultimately, shortened her life, she wouldn't have been the first and won't be the last Black person that happens to.

And that is not an abstraction.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



A few years ago I went to the ER for a terrible pain in my ovary and as per the norm it was terrible. This hospital in one of the many Bronx hoods had me go through registration, urinate in a cup, and tell me to wait outside…WITH THE CUP OF URINE IN MY HANDS! I waited for almost 2 hours, asking when the cup of my urine will FINALLY be picked up by a nurse or a doctor. Confused faces. I finally threw a fit and said NO HUMAN BEING SHOULD BE MADE TO HOLD A CUP WITH THEIR URINE IN THE EMERGENCY ROOM! NOBODY! I HAVE RIGHTS! My best friend told me I was being dramatic and that I embarrassed him. I said um no. This would not happen at a hospital where most of the patients are White. I WILL call them out on it and I don't care if you're embarrassed. Bias within the medical and scientific community is very real. Don't tell me Science is objective. It isn't, and neither is medicine.

I hate doctors.