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Listening and Learning: Systemic Racism, Racial and Sexual Disparities in Women’s Health

Part 7: Opening My Eyes

By Ashley Deans

Ashley Deans

I started working as the Communications Specialist at the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies (GWHT) about a month and a half ago. My first day on the job, I began by familiarizing myself with some of the Center’s existing communications materials. One of the first resources I explored was our WISH website. I quickly learned from the site that although cervical cancer is a treatable and preventable disease if detected early enough, thousands of women die every year from cervical cancer due to a lack of access to care. In fact, by 2060, there will be an estimated 60 million new cases of cervical cancer worldwide. I was absolutely shocked by these numbers!


One of the big projects that I have worked on in the last month and a half is producing this blog series alongside GWHT’s staff assistant Alexandria Da Ponte. In this series, members of the Duke community have shared their research and personal stories, and I have been educated about so many issues in women’s health that I never knew were issues in the first place. If you haven’t read Parts 1–6 of this series, I really recommend them! They’re all linked at the bottom of this article. In Part 5, Arielle Hutchinson shared about race-related disparities in healthcare, with some shocking statistics. For example, black women are 4 to 5 times more likely to die from childbirth than white women. That is horrifying. Before working here, I had absolutely no idea that these problems existed.


Our lab has also been having biweekly meetings centered around Diversity and Inclusion. Usually, the individuals leading the meeting will send out some resources (such as an article or TED Talk) before the meeting for everyone to engage with independently, and then we discuss the resources as a group. At our last meeting, one of these resources was an article by KeShawn Ivory discussing his experience being black in the field of astrophysics. One quote in the article really stuck out to me:

KeShawn Ivory, Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Scholar

“I would be an even better astrophysicist if I were not grappling at this very moment with the reality that this exact message, one that we as a Black community have been yelling for years now, has only become acceptable in the mainstream because a pandemic has white people bored at home long enough to actually listen.” -KeShawn Ivory


Unfortunately, it took a pandemic, nationwide protests, and a new job for me to open my eyes to issues that have been going on for years. In the past month and a half, I have been reflecting on my ignorance. Why have I been so unaware of widespread, literal life or death issues?

One possible reason is that I am not a doctor or medical researcher, so it’s easy to excuse some ignorance when it pertains to discrimination within the field of medicine. But I knew about the opioid epidemic (another public health crisis, but one that primarily affects white individuals), so why didn’t I know about black maternal mortality?

One possible reason is that the media doesn’t cover issues that affect people of color as much as it covers issues that affect white people. While this is certainly part of the problem, I also understand that I have personal responsibility to educate myself on these issues.

Another possible reason, and the only reason that I have direct control over, is that I never took the time to learn about these issues because I wasn’t directly affected. As a white, cisgender woman that grew up in a financially stable household, in a culture where women’s health isn’t completely stigmatized (it is stigmatized, but not like in other cultures), I have never had to worry about dying from a preventable disease, dying in childbirth, or having to go without medical care because of a lack of insurance. The fact that I never had to worry about these things shows that I have a privilege — and what’s concerning is that I never really knew what a privilege it is.

Participants of the 2018 Triangle Global Health Conference engage in the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies’ activity about the cervix

The first step in becoming actively anti-racist is broadening your perspective. Ignorance is dangerous, and allows disparities in healthcare and beyond to persist. I’m glad that my eyes have been opened in the past couple months, but I am regretful that it has taken me this long. Now that I have begun to acknowledge this, I must continue “Listening and Learning,” and let what I learn guide my actions.

I encourage you to do the same — broaden your horizons and truly challenge yourself to learn more in areas where you might lack knowledge. Reading this series is a great starting point, but don’t let it end there. Listen, learn, and then go act.


Continue reading the “Listening and Learning: Systemic racism, Racial and Sexual Disparities in Women’s Health” series:

Part 1: Confronting the Non-Consensual Origins of Gynecology Research

Part 2: Reclamation vs Rejection at the GYN

Part 3: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Part 4: Historical Power Imbalances in Puerto Rican Healthcare and How they Concern Biomedical Engineers

Part 5: Moving Beyond the Movement

Part 6: Who Gets Healthcare and Who Does Not?

Part 8: Say it Louder: That was so Weird!



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