We Are More Than What Happens to Our Bodies
Columnist and racial justice advocate Kenrya Rankin tackles the space where race and health meet—and reminds us that we aren’t defined by what ails us.
As a Black woman in America, there is not a day that racism doesn’t threaten my life. I write this, my first entry for HealthCentral’s Race to Health column, on the day after learning that the carceral system still doesn’t care about the lives of Black people killed by police. But as a racial justice expert, former magazine health editor, trained doula and an author who is currently writing a book about the ways racism negatively impacts the health of Black women, I know that warped justice is not the only thing that kills us.
But I should start at the beginning. By most measures, I was a sick kid. Diagnosed with asthma when I was just 18 months old, I spent many, many days at home and in hospital beds, a nebulizer working to open my airways. A nerd even then, school was my favorite thing (behind my beloved books), but I missed dozens of days each year when colds that would cause sniffles in most kids sent me to the emergency room. Bummer.
By the time I reached high school, my breathing was much better controlled, but another chronic condition took over: primary dysmenorrhea, otherwise known as super cramps that happen during menstruation. Man. My cramps got more and more painful until I was missing at least a couple days of school each month. Between the intense cramping in my abdomen and legs and the incessant vomiting that came with those awful periods, I spent much of that time being carried by my dad between my twin bed and the bathroom. Not fun. I still struggle with this one; we’ll dive into the long-lasting repercussions of that drama another time.
Next on my chronic condition list: hypothyroidism. After finding out that my thyroid was full of tumors (they turned out to be benign!) I had the whole shebang removed when it got big enough to press on my carotid artery (scary stuff). I now take two synthetic hormone replacement pills every morning so that my body can carry out its metabolic duties.
I had my first panic attack in the eighth grade, but with mental health care not yet a thing in my corner of suburban Cleveland, no one knew what was happening. Fast forward to my 30s, and I was finally diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD. Therapy—and the tools it has given me—help me adult, even on days when my brain tells me to freak out instead.
Okay, so I guess maybe I’m a sick grown-up, too? But here’s the thing: I don’t feel like one. These conditions are all part of my experience, but none of them define me. And they don’t have to define you, either. A couple of times a month in this space, we will have frank and informative convos about these conditions and others that are impacted by race and racism. From the reasons that the coronavirus disproportionately damages the bodies of Black people to the ways access to reproductive care discriminates, we will lift up the lived experiences, advocacy and expertise of people of color.
I take on this work because I’m compelled to expand the conversation around who deserves liberation and justice in America. I want to help readers (that’s YOU) expand themselves and their thinking around the intertwined concepts of race, health, identity, justice, dignity and joy. I do it because it brings me joy. So often, the stories of people of color are relegated to the edges of discourse. But my very wholeness depends on my ability to render others whole via work that centers their stories, tugs the page hard enough to slide them from the margins to the center where they belong, and reminds them that they were born complete and perfect—even if chronic illness makes them doubt that some days.