Black Women and Invisible Illnesses

This post by Harper Spero (justBOBBI) on how to show support for people with invisible illnesses made me think about all of the black women in my life (including me) who struggle with invisible illnesses. Invisible illnesses are illnesses that seriously impact one’s health and daily quality of life, although those with invisible illnesses often “don’t look sick.” Many people with autoimmune illnesses, in particular (like lupus, sarcoidosis, and multiple sclerosis), find our health issues questioned because other think we “look fine” and, therefore, must be fine. Not fitting others’ conception of illness—be they strangers, colleagues, or loved ones— can affect willingness to provide accommodations (even though this is illegal in the workplace) and other needed support. That symptoms like extreme fatigue, joint aches, and reduced lung capacity may not present in ways that are obvious to others does not make those symptoms any less real or any less debilitating. Spero’s post does a good job both explaining how invisible illnesses affect those who have them and how others can be supportive.

However, our health status (like other aspects of our lives) does not occur in a vacuum. While autoimmune illnesses affect women generally more than men, black women, Latinas, and Native American women are at higher risk for many autoimmune illnesses and we tend to experience more severe complications. It is well known and documented that stress can be triggering for autoimmune illnesses, and racial and gendered stress are also known to negatively impact health. So, black women are more likely to have autoimmune illnesses, to have more significant complications, and to experience stress-induced flare-ups— all while not “looking sick.”

Additionally, inadequate access to health care, failure to take the symptom complaints of black women seriously, along with the general difficulty in diagnosing some autoimmune illnesses, delays diagnosis for black women. Race and gender intersect in the diagnosis and experience of the illness itself and in how we are able to go about our daily lives while coping with illness. Racial and gendered stereotypes of black women as drug addicts/drug seekers contributes to the disparities in pain management. Additionally, stereotypes about black women being lazy or trying to “get over on the system” can impact, for example, strangers’ willingness to “confront” black women who use handicap parking while “not looking sick” or the level of scrutiny our disability claims or work accommodation requests receive.

All of these factors mean that, as if often the case, black women have a steeper climb than others in managing invisible illnesses.