After spending four days in the Dominican Republic in celebration of finishing grad school, I noticed my skin was itchy, red and swollen. When I arrived back home, I decided to make an appointment with a nearby dermatologist. Just before my appointment, I noticed my skin had begun peeling, so I put on a pair of oversized sunglasses and headed out the door. After a series of medical questions, the dermatologist began examining my skin. The dermatologist took one step back and looked at me in shock. I reluctantly asked her what it was, and her reply was, “sunburn.” I looked at her puzzled and embarrassed, and she replied, “I don’t know why you’re so sensitive to the sun when you’re so dark.” Despite the heat permeating from my face, I was frozen. I was shocked that a medical professional would be so crass with her diagnosis. She wrapped up her pseudo-examination, and I made my way to the front desk and checked out.
Forty dollars later, I had no real understanding of why my skin was so sensitive to the sun or why my blackness was brought into question. This reminded me of a time when a friend was told by her former rheumatologist that “Black people have bad genes,” in response to her questions about lupus symptoms. These situations leave me wondering if cultural awareness and sensitivity are a part of medical school curriculum. Many medical conditions that African Americans face are byproducts of slavery, poor nutrition, misinformation and even medical testing (i.e., Tuskegee Study). Melanin provides a false sense of security to many African Americans, myself included.
It’s reported that nearly two out of three African Americans never wear sunscreen.
The misconception that increased amounts of melanin serve as a protector from sun-related injuries is a danger to people of color. Bob Marley, a famous reggae singer/activist, died of melanoma, which is linked directly to sun damage. According to the American Medical Association, the survival rate of melanoma is 58 percent among African Americans compared to 84 percent for Caucasians. This makes it incredibly important for people of color to be knowledgeable about the dangers of the sun and take precaution.
“Ignorance is like sun damage,” my friend Kevin says. “It does not discriminate.”
Brothers and sisters, invest in sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50 and wear a hat while out in the sun. Furthermore, check your skin for any changes (color, inflammation, or texture) or moles as these can be signs of early damage. The sooner you spot a change, the better off you’ll be. Last but not least, medical professionals, please invest in diversity training as this may cure symptoms of ignorance and hopefully allow you to provide your patients with a more inclusive experience.