Why We Have to Talk About Race and Cancer

I ‘m very sympathetic to the idea of just dropping the conversation about race entirely. After all, it was an amazing vision that Martin Luther King Jr had when he conjectured, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And while we once believed that humanity was a genus with several different species, scientific progress has shown us that there is only one human species and every single human is a member of that species. I am eager to embrace both dreams and facts, especially when both indicate passionately that this whole “race” thing is a farce.

But I can’t.

If I found out I had cancer, I cannot simply stop thinking about it and hope that it goes away. I have to remove it. That takes thoughtful action not only my part, but on the part of my family, friends, co-workers, and medical physicians. I would have to make arrangements and plans and be very specific about how my life would need to change before and after the operation.

Racism is a cancer and just like a cancer, it takes otherwise good parts of us and pollutes them with bad parts. We don’t always see it, but we feel its effects. And so we need to talk about how we’re going to treat it. Because, like it or not, we, as a society, have racism/cancer, and so we, as a society, have to go through an unpleasant procedure in order to get back to our normal, healthy selves.


Our standard conversations revolve around how bad or systemic the racism has gotten. Most everyone has a bias and would like to issue a prognosis that fits their world view. On one extreme, we have people that say almost everything and everyone is racist. They over-diagnose and exaggerate. They sometimes selectively apply it to excuse one kind of racism that they like (i.e. affirmative action, “killing people for being white is not racist”) and then condemn all white people as at fault for these problems no matter how much they try to be allies. They will even dismiss open-minded people who try to understand as individuals who can never understand and will always be part of the problem merely by existing.

On the other extreme, we have people say that this cancer is almost dead and retreating quickly. They believe that if the doctors would stop going on about it, it would die off. They tend to completely ignore the rationale for the drug war and, even if they accept that it was originally racist, will insist that plenty of white people are getting locked up because of it too, so it’s not linked to race anymore. They enjoy looking at a sample that is cancer-free and will exclaim, “Look, no racism here!” while conveniently denying other samples where the cancer has radically progressed.

Let’s balance these two sides. No, America is not one gigantic barely functioning racist cancer patient. There are huge swaths of the country that have put race aside. Maybe you, reader, live in a place like me, where if you have a Confederate flag on your car or get a tattoo of a Swastika, you will endure both property damage and physical harm. Maybe you even live in a place where social correction goes too far, where if you ask the wrong question, you face social exile or lose friends and family. But that doesn’t mean that these other areas don’t exist or can afford to be ignored.

Allow me to share a personal example. In perhaps the greatest error of my life, my dog developed a limp and I gave him aspirin. The aspirin took away his limp completely and he was a normal, healthy dog. We went mountain climbing together! Then, one day, he stopped eating and began howling in pain. It turns out that limp was cancer that went untreated for five years and it had spread to his stomach. It was inoperable and I had to put him down to end his suffering. I don’t regret killing him with intention that day; the part that haunts me is how I killed him through ignorance. I gave him aspirin when he needed surgery.

My point is that we have to stop fighting about how much cancer is there and start talking about treatment. It will grow in large or small quantities alike. And it will effect the good cells we’ve got if we do nothing.

The Doll Test became famous during Brown v The Board of Education. In it, they had a white doll and a black doll and would ask students, individually, both white and black, to point at the ugly, bad, or stupid doll. Invariably, they would point at the black doll. When asked to point at the pretty, good, or smart doll, they would point at the white one. Only when asked which one they looked like would the children point at different dolls. This means the white kids felt all of these good things that the white doll symbolized and the black kids felt all of these bad things that the black doll symbolized.

You might be heartbroken upon hearing this, but the news gets worse. They conducted the test again recently and found the same results in our current generation.

I want to think that we’re so much better than we were during the age of Jim Crow and before the Civil Rights Act. But we’re not. Maybe better in that we’re not calling people “boy” or “n****r” out in public. Legally, we’ve fixed quite a bit. But we’re stuck in the same mentality. The effect of some people feeling like they ugly, bad, and stupid persists. And any psychologist worth their salt will tell you that this absolutely effects their self-evaluation and their decisions.

It’s not just a problem that can be dealt with by black people alone. We must remember that the Doll Test involves many races coming to the conclusion that skin color determines more than it should and these kids will grow up into adults that we always hope grow beyond these prejudices. That hope has not come to fruition. If a black person and white person apply for the same job with identical resumes, the white person is far more like to be hired (you can read about the results of this test here).

I am not an idealist. I understand that some people will be racist and there will always be these people. Let’s go back to the cancer analogy; our body is bombarded with cell mutations constantly. Most of them are benign, they aren’t healthy, but they won’t spread. They are freak accidents in which your body will recognize and fix the mutated cell or strand with a healthy one. I would say this is an acceptable place for the evil of racism, to exist in the form of a bad idea among people who are replaceable and powerless.

Unfortunately, this kind of racism is not a benign cancer. It forms societies and gets involved. It forms voting blocs and multi-million dollar clubs. This is not some occasional swamp trash human making his way to the city and being laughed off. Racists are people that make it to popular debate stages, legitimize themselves through junk science and social media presence, and make demands. They’ve got enough of a voice that even our youngest children feel inferior or superior based on skin color before they even step foot outside of the home and into the classroom.

We’ve got to talk about it. We’ve got to kill this cancer for good. I feel like most people are in a reasonable head-space where we can make this happen. We just have to stop fighting about how bad it is and make a plan to get rid of the bad that it is. We have to do this together. Dreaming about a world that is cancer-free is great. And now it’s time to stop dreaming and make it a tangible goal.

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