Black pain for laughs

If you are in the business of comedy and making people laugh, the laziest route to fast laughs is to laugh at Black people with no regard to our trauma and history. Which is what NBC’s Saturday Night Live did on April 3, 2021, with their “Vaccine Game Show” sketch featuring esteemed actor Daniel Kaluuya. 

The premise of the “show” was that Kaluuya, playing the role of a medical doctor, attempts to bribe his family members into getting the COVID vaccine. Family members included a diabetic, a heart attack survivor, and others—who are all at high risk of contracting COVID and/or suffering from it more acutely than the average person. Yet not even the offer of $5,000 in cash can make any of the relatives budge. 

On the surface, no doubt the characters were amusing. After all, as a Black woman raised in Chicago, I could recognize pieces of my own family members in some of the characters. That said, the sketch is lazy, factually incorrect, and does nothing to address the reality that any reluctance on the part of Black Americans to receive the vaccine is rooted in the historical and ongoing mistreatment that Black Americans have received by the healthcare system. It’s also downright racist, and the presence of Black actors does nothing to take away from the racism dripping from this sketch, because the painful and rarely-discussed-in-public truth is that Black people can uphold the white supremacy that undergirds moments such as this one. 

To be Black in America is to personally have experienced the healthcare system’s disregard of Black bodies, or to know other Black folks who have experienced such disregard. Lest anyone think this is simply a matter of class and money, let’s not forget that world-class tennis player and mom, Serena Williams, almost died after giving birth in 2018. She was experiencing a pulmonary embolism and her healthcare team was initially dismissive of her concerns and her complaints of unusual symptoms. Thankfully, Wlliams knew her own body and advocated hard for proper evaluation and care—and she survived to tell the story. Others are not so fortunate.

It is a well-documented fact that Black women have higher rates of pregnancy mortality. From birth to death, Black people are not heard properly—or are dismissed entirely—when it comes to our bodies, and this remains an ongoing problem. It was only a few years ago that a study was released in which it was noted that medical residents admitted to thinking that Black people feel less pain than white people, among other racist myths. Which means they frequently are not getting proper pain management, as well as other medical failures.

On a personal note, I am still not convinced that my father would have died early in the pandemic had he been a white man. For two months, my father told medical professionals that he was struggling with an assortment of symptoms—symptoms that for a man who was hypertensive were impending signs of a massive stroke. And guess what? My Dad suffered a massive stroke that, according to his death certificate, led directly to his death. But that’s a story for another time. 

But for folks who cannot conceive of healthcare racism at this moment, we only have to look back at the Tuskegee Experiment, where researchers lied to study participants and simply withheld treatment for syphilis while letting them think they were being treated to proper healthcare—just to see what would happen. For 40 years. People were allowed to suffer when in fact penicillin could have treated them. Or we could look at the story of Henrietta Lacks, who in 1951 was diagnosed with cervical cancer and whose “immortal” cells were taken from her body without her permission and cultivated over and over for many breakthrough kinds of life-sciences research and drug testing. But neither she nor her family were asked permission to do so, and none of them were compensated in any way

I could go on. After all, not only have Black people been ignored and violated by the medical profession, so have Indigenous People and others. It’s simply a fact. 

So, any reluctance on the part of today’s Black folks to try a new vaccine comes from a place of learned suspicion—but that’s not what’s really the entire picture of what’s going on. 

As vaccines were rolled out, as early as February of this year, there were reports of well-heeled white folks going into communities of color and snatching up vaccination appointments. 

If anything, the initial launch of the vaccine campaign was skewed to ensure that low-income folks and folks of color, despite often being at the greatest risk, would not have early access in many communities across the nation. Since, in many cases, early on, getting an appointment required internet access and time, resources that are not always available to Black folks or other ignored or underserved communities. 

While SNL went for the quickest laughs by portraying Black folks as vapid idiots, the reality is that the largest segment of people who have chosen to not receive the vaccine are white evangelicals. Reportedly, there are 41 million white evangelicals with almost 45% of them saying they will not vaccinate. And while there are 46.8 million Black folks in America, it seems that if SNL wanted to have a laugh at a group of people who choose to not vaccinate for questionable reasons, the white evangelicals might have been a better place to start. After all, many of these same unvaccinated white people also had a certain affinity for the last guy in the White House despite the fact that there was nothing godly about the man. But all of these things for reasons that cannot be explained by their Bibles—and as a preacher’s kid and still a Christian, I suspect I know the Bible as well as many of these white evangelicals, and probably better than most of them. 

The irony of all this is that as COVID has personally affected so many in the Black community, most of us are eager to get the vaccine. As of this writing, I am only a few days out from receiving my second Moderna shot, and my only sibling who was diagnosed with diabetes a few months ago received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine recently. Almost everyone in my personal circle is ready to be vaccinated, or has been vaccinated. We have lost too many loved ones in the past year and are ready to see an end to this pain. 

But in America, we like to punch downward, and if we can find members of the afflicted group willing to punch down and make their own people look like fools, we can pass it off as representation. Which means that, of course, it’s “not racist.” Or at least that is the lie we tell ourselves. However, not all representation is worthy or good, and sadly there are many who for a myriad of reasons will sell out their own people. Either because they are not empowered to say no, or because they don’t care. 

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