The racialization of illness; or, who gets to be sick

Being sick as a queer person of color isn’t simple. Doctors and medical professionals tell me that my symptoms and health problems confuse them because of how they distinctly impact my life but lack the intensity to fall neatly into the little boxes modern medicine has outlined for various disorders (that are more often than not based on white bodies).

Each time I hear them say this, I know that this is half of the truth. Trauma has marked most aspects of my life, and with that comes an impact on my health that can mimic or veer towards the territory of established syndromes.

But the other half of the truth is that often because of my race, people aren’t looking, even when the answer is obvious.

I have many of the hallmarks of OCD, the ones that aren’t popularized by the media: a consistent struggle with an eating disorder, perfectionism that scores in the 99th percentile, hoarding tendencies, a frenetic focus on doing things for the sake of having to do them. For most of my life I have joked about my OCD, and within of month of being together my partner began talking at length about how I needed to get my OCD treated. Yet medical health professionals haven’t flagged it until recently because I’m Asian and Asian cultures “value perfectionism” or something. The same goes with my hypermobility. I’m fairly certain I fall somewhere within the Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders, yet my hypermobility has more often than not been explained away as “Asians are more flexible”.  My body’s other idiosyncracies that are probably linked to my hypermobility (rampant eczema, a high roof to my mouth, soft teeth, poor eyesight, inflammation of my chest joints, and so forth) have been waved off as odd variations in human biology.

To be diagnosed with any sort of illness, doctors have to think that you’re fragile, but not too fragile. I’m still trying to figure this out in relation to my race: it’s clear that society thinks of white women as fragile and black women as strong (and therefore capable of enduring pain), which impacts the kind of medical care white women receive versus black women. What does society think of Asian women’s pain, illness, and physical constitution?

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