On January 27th, 2021, Dr. Akshay Pendyal gave a talk for the Humanities Program called “Race, Health, and Disease: a Critical Perspective.” He opened with a narrative about one of his patients. He explained that the purpose of opening with a story was to humanize the patients and contextualize his theme to open a pathway for empathy. He then introduced us to a common practice among doctors that contributes to the overall dehumanization of patients: overlooking their “social history,” which he claims can actually tell doctors a full picture of their patient. The most important takeaway from this part of the talk was that patients are not their disease, and medical workers need to remember this fact when treating patients in order to provide better treatment and holistic care.
Dr. Pendyal then addressed how race intersects with inequality in health and healthcare: marginalized communities, especially African American and Latino communities, are disproportionately affected by disease compared to white communities. This inequality has been starkly visible in the COVID-19 pandemic. He explained that black bodies are not different from white bodies genetically, but they are at higher risk for disease due to social ills that are largely caused by systemic and structural racism: “it is your zipcode, not your genetic code, that makes a difference.” The interconnectivity of social, political, historical, and environmental problems clearly demonstrate how society is structured to value and protect white bodies at the risk of other bodies. In the pandemic, for example, many poor black women have low wage domestic jobs that are difficult, undignified, and that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. However, they have to make the choice everyday whether to risk their health or not put food on the table for their families.
Dr. Pendyal closed his talk with a discussion on why the Humanities are so important in education. He talked about how they give us the opportunity to ask “why” and challenge social norms by digging deeper into moments and narratives. Additionally, learning about history through different lenses gives us a better understanding of the modern world and allows us to not repeat the same mistakes. For example, we can trace health disparities and inequality in the black community to the history of racism in our country, and even further, to accounts of suffering through time and space across the African diaspora. Throughout our own course, we’ve discussed the importance of narratives and hearing from marginalized voices to gain a fuller understanding of historical events. The Humanities can help us learn empathy and how to connect with other human beings. Thus, we are being prepared to start those uncomfortable conversations about the past and present in order to make better decisions in the future.