In a world where healthcare disparities persist and equitable representation remains a constant battle, the stories, and experiences of Black women in health often go unheard. Yet, their narratives are not only crucial but also inspiring. At a recent event to celebrate Black History Month, three Black female professionals – Dr Ria Clarke (RC), Esmé Ara’Resa (ER) and Priscilla Vivian (PV) – amplified these voices and explored the multifaceted aspects of Black women’s lives and health. The night was a profound exploration of treating Black female patients, being a Black woman working in healthcare, and navigating the difficulty of self-care. Our guests delved into the significance of allyship in reshaping the healthcare landscape. They highlighted how history has often undermined Black women’s contributions and well-being, making the case for advocacy more vital than ever.
Southampton medical students Ihuoma Osuji and Oluwasemire Adetoro had the opportunity to interview the panellists and gather their unique perspectives. Their presentations and interviews focused on the experiences and challenges of Black women in healthcare. Now, we are excited to share the key takeaways, insights and discussions from the event.
Identity: The Root of Black Women’s Strength and Drive
“What this journey taught me is how place and identity shape our psyche; it teaches us who we are, and it teaches us about other people as well” – PV.
As children of the diaspora, Black women’s cultural background and early experiences significantly shape their identity and the lens through which they perceive the world. PV beautifully paid homage to her Ugandan heritage and upbringing in Brixton. From a young age, she witnessed significant struggles which fuelled a desire to escape from her environment. Instead of being defined by these hardships, she channelled them into positive forces, propelling her to become an advocate for Black mental health. Whilst personal experiences and backgrounds mould Black women’s identities, they intersect with larger cultural narratives perpetuated over time. One of the most pervasive yet controversial of these narratives is the archetype of the ‘Strong Black Woman.’ Whilst seen as a symbol of resilience and strength, this image has negative implications that are not immediately evident.
The Strong Black Woman (SBW)
“It’s very powerful when people confront that trope and hold space for Black women to admit they’re not okay and reach out for support”- EA.
Colonial powers perpetuated the ‘Strong Black Woman’ (SBW) trope which suggests that Black women are inherently impervious to pain and suffering. This harmful idea has been the basis for rationalising the inhumane treatment, exploitation, and abuse of Black women over time. Today, Black women internalise the expectation of formidable strength. They are programmed to suppress their emotional needs and hinder their ability to express vulnerability. RC shattered this trope by openly discussing her ongoing experiences with imposter syndrome- which resonated with many Black students in the audience. By being honest with the audience, Dr Ria disclosed the often-silenced struggles Black women face. PV also challenged this trope in her discussion of the ‘Soft Life Movement’. The ‘Soft Life Movement’ is a cultural and societal trend encouraging Black women to embrace vulnerability, softness and emotional openness. It promotes self-care and emotional well-being as priorities, rather than unaffordable luxuries, and provides Black women with the agency to assert their emotional experiences. As an antithesis to the SBW trope, it highlights the need to question and dismantle colonial narratives found in all parts of society.
A Look into History: Glorification & Exploitation
“We need to recognise that Black women are a vulnerable group and have always been a vulnerable group.” – RC
Decolonial theory centres on reclaiming authentic cultural, personal and historical stories that have been silenced or distorted by colonial powers. This is emphasised at Vivify Therapy where PV integrates decolonial theory into her 3 step-approach. Similarly, RC and EA challenge historical misconceptions by critiquing the undue praise given to 19th-century American physician- J. Marion Sims. Despite his contributions to modern medicine, Sims conducted exploitative and non-consensual experiments on enslaved Black women. This is, but one instance in, a broader pattern where Black women’s invaluable contributions are overshadowed or erased. EA sought to rectify this imbalance by honouring and commemorating figures like the ‘Mothers of Gynaecology’- Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and all the unnamed patients of J. Marion Sims- whose suffering and labour underpinned the discoveries in modern gynaecology. Understanding this historical maltreatment of Black women in healthcare reveals enduring prejudices that often persist today.
Black Women Understand Your Bodies: Beyond Myths and Misconceptions.
“Our bodies are not the problem!” – RC
The medical field has historically pathologized Black women’s bodies and, troublingly, continues to do so. Medical professionals often attribute their health issues to racist stereotypes rather than addressing the root causes. Such perceptions frequently lead to Black women’s health concerns being overlooked or misdiagnosed. The speakers universally challenged these misconceptions, highlighting the underlying systemic biases that perpetuate them. They also stressed the importance of understanding one’s body as a form of empowerment. EA emphasised the liberation that comes from understanding one’s menstrual cycle, drawing a link between menstrual and mental health, a topic for which PV fervently advocates. PV underscored the necessity for Black women to prioritise their mental well-being and seek help to find an individualised approach to doing so. By being knowledgeable and proactive in these areas (and many more), Black women can reclaim authority over their health, equipping them to fight for their right to equitable healthcare- which was stressed by RC. However, as EA acknowledged, the voices of Black women (while powerful) cannot stand alone. Allies across communities must work to amplify and uplift their calls for justice and equity.
Advocacy: Within and Beyond the Community
“Sometimes we don’t always feel like we can share with Black men or that they will acknowledge some of the things we go through.” PV
Traditionally, Black women have not always received the advocacy and support they need from Black men and individuals of other gender identities. Such advocacy within the Black community plays a pivotal role in fostering nurturing environments where Black women feel supported. The speakers shared heartfelt and personal accounts of effective allyship from non-female members of the Black community. RC fondly recalled her Obs and Gynae educational supervisor who went beyond his role to bolster her confidence when she, as a young trainee, found asserting herself a real challenge. PV and RC unveiled examples of Black men actively countering the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype, thereby providing non-judgemental spaces for Black Women to voice their struggles. These deliberate acts of allyship convey how Black men and individuals of other gender identities can genuinely empower and uplift Black women.
“Find ways to implement cultural competency within your consultations so the patient doesn’t feel alienated.” PV
For all healthcare workers, delivering inclusive and empathetic care to Black female patients is imperative. The speakers uniformly emphasised the necessity of fostering a safe environment where Black women can share their distinct lived experiences and feel acknowledged. Beyond having good intentions, EA and RC highlighted the need for introspection amongst healthcare workers to assess their unconscious biases and how they affect their perceptions of Black women. Furthermore, as pointed out by PV and EA, healthcare institutions must provide their staff with formal training that promotes cultural competence and health equity. As advised by RC, those committed to this journey must be prepared to navigate discomfort and occasionally make mistakes. While the path may be fraught with challenges, the reward of providing truly inclusive care is invaluable and will be greatly valued by patients.
Words of Wisdom for Aspiring Black Female Healthcare Professionals
“We should not feel that as individuals we need to be superheroes, we deserve to be supported in making that change.” EA
Each speaker has trailblazed the healthcare sector and made contributions to bettering individual lives and influencing broader systemic change. Their collective wisdom, shaped by their experiences, provides invaluable advice to young Black women aspiring to tread a similar path. They emphasised the importance of being proactive and resilient whilst prioritising self-care. PV encouraged young Black women to explore diverse opportunities, urging them to thoroughly research and discover fields most aligned with their passions and values, ensuring a career that resonates with them. EA underscored the pivotal role which support systems played in her journey. She highlighted potential hurdles young Black women may face, such as discouraging statistics or unforeseen setbacks, which make a strong support system essential for sustainable growth and achievement. RC, meanwhile, highlighted the significance of community and the power of networking. She passionately urged young Black women to wholeheartedly embrace their ambitions, never shrinking themselves to benefit others. With the right blend of passion, education and support, there is no limit to what anyone can achieve.
Summary & Challenge to Audience
“Be willing to be uncomfortable if you are genuine about learning.” RC
In conclusion, our event celebrated Black women’s invaluable voices and experiences in healthcare. Their stories emphasised the need for equitable treatment, self-empowerment, allyship, and the importance of mental health. It’s a call to advocate, support, and empower the journey forward.
Having engaged with the insights of our 3 formidable speakers, we hope you incorporate some of their key teaching points into your lives. To guide this process, we have outlined several challenges for you, the readers:
- Actively support Black women Both Within and out of healthcare settings.
1.1. This can be done by:
1.1.1. Confronting racism and other forms of prejudice,
1.1.2. Advocating for equitable treatment
1.1.3. Amplifying Black women’s voices
- Empower Black women to Harness their inner strength.
2.1. This can be done by celebrating the achievements of Black women.
- Promote menstrual literacy and prioritise self-care.
3.1. This can be done by
3.1.1. Learning more about your menstrual cycle, if applicable
3.1.2. Encouraging open conversations about menstrual health
3.1.3. Challenging misconceptions related to menstrual health.
Background on Speakers
Dr Ria Clarke – A graduate of Southampton’s BM6 programme, also known as “Dr Mummy”. Dr Ria is an obstetrics and gynaecology registrar actively addressing racial disparities in maternal healthcare. She is an ambassador for Tommy’s, which advocates for maternal healthcare equity, and a trustee for the Birthrights charity. She strives to bring awareness to the disparity in care for Black maternal pregnancies and overall health.
Esmé Ara’resa – A community builder, entrepreneur, and founder of Go Beyond Bleeding. This group’s primary goal is to equip women with the knowledge and confidence to take charge of their health and well-being. She hopes to empower women to make informed choices regarding menstrual health and better advocate for themselves in healthcare settings.
Priscilla Vivian – A mental health professional and founder of Vivify Therapy, a multicultural mental health service focusing on individuals struggling with cultural identity, emotional disconnection, and life purpose. She combines mindfulness and evidence-based psychology to foster self-compassion and enhance behavioural awareness. She aims to enable clients to thrive and consciously shape their desired lives.
This article was written by Ihuoma Osuji and OIwasemire Adetoro.
Ihuoma: Black. Pronouns she/her. I am a 3rd-year medical student and am passionate about ensuring equity in healthcare. I believe fervently in the need to diversify and decolonise our medical curriculum. Not just for academic enhancement, but to shape our future careers and the quality of care we provide to all patients.
Oluwasemire: Black. Pronouns he/him. I am a 2nd-year medical student with a strong passion for equity and justice in healthcare. I believe that empathy, education, and advocacy are powerful tools for creating a fairer and more inclusive healthcare landscape.