The Erasure Experience
Has the ‘discovery’ of medical gaslighting been suddenly Columbused by mainstream media?
While women, in general, cringed as they watched Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson endure days of hearings in which certain white senators (Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham in particular) assailed her with politically charged questions and puerile outbursts, Black and Brown women connected with Jackson on another level. As women of color, we recognized immediately that these senators sought to render invisible the accomplishments of President Joe Biden’s nominee of America’s first Black justice to the Supreme Court during this historic confirmation hearing.
The blatant disrespect directed at this female, African American judge was a jarring reminder of how easy it is for white people in positions of power to dismiss the work of women of color. Such experiences are not simply racist. This is about not being seen at all — when you and your life’s work are not seen or acknowledged to begin with. My recent experience as an “invisible woman” drove this point home to me.
Last month, two major publications, the New York Times and the Washington Post, ran articles on women calling out “medical gaslighting,” and the harm it does, especially to people of color. The titles and main points of the articles, “Women are calling out medical gaslighting” and “Women are sharing their ‘medical gaslighting’ stories. Now what?” essentially reiterate the thesis of my book, The Pain Gap: How Sexism and Racism in Healthcare Kill Women which Simon & Schuster brought out in October 2021.
Outraged friends sent me copies of the NYT article, claiming it was “stealing” from my book. At first, I didn’t pay much attention. After all, I don’t own the topic of women’s health, and it’s always good when respected publications like the Times spotlight racism and sexism in health care.
But after dozens of people continued to send me the article, including serious journalists who were also pointing out similarities to my book on Twitter, I finally read the piece for myself. I recognized immediately how closely it read like Pain Gap-light — a version of the main ideas in my deeply researched book on the subject — without giving me any credit. I was shocked that the author had not done her research before writing her piece and devastated that my work was therefore “invisible.”
Both articles also failed to mention Black authors such as Harriet A. Washington or Dayna Bowen Matthew, two women who have been in the racism and sexism in the health care space for quite some time.
Even more maddening was that the Times article was followed by a Washington Post article that cited the Times, implying that this was the first-ever reporting on this aspect of women’s health. Both writers were unaware that I had written an entire book on the subject. Its debut last October was covered by major television networks and magazines.
While I do not expect the entire reading public to know about my book, I do expect someone who writes for the NYT, is a faculty member at the NYU School of Journalism, and is an author herself to conduct basic research on what had already been written on the subject before constructing her own angle.
A quick Google search reveals that The Pain Gap was launched on MSNBC’s Morning Joe with host Mika Brzezinski. It was published by Simon & Schuster and excerpted on Vogue.com. Christy Turlington Burns, Sophia A. Nelson, Soraya Chemaly, Jill Filipovic wrote blurbs for it, and Jessica Valenti wrote the foreword.
In short, it is no small oversight not to acknowledge The Pain Gap in an article that essentially presents the NYT author as the authority on the subject. This is how the work of Black and Brown women is erased in real time.
At the risk of sounding like an angry Brown woman, I nevertheless called out the writer on Twitter and Instagram. To her credit, she was quick to offer an apology but failed to address lingering questions about the shortcomings in her own research before publishing.
Not only was my work ignored but also the voices of the hundreds of women of color I interviewed. Their stories matter. Historically, we are always left out of the larger narrative, and one of the most important things about The Pain Gap is that it puts the experiences of Black and Brown women on center stage. It is also one of the few books on the topic of women’s health in America written by a woman of color herself.
As my tweet continued to go viral, well-meaning (mostly white) colleagues warned about how as a feminist, I should be wary of “attacking” another woman in such a public way. But women of color immediately understood where my rage was coming from.
“This erasure of the contributions of Black and Brown writers, and journalists, especially if they are women, happens too much,” writer and political strategist, Atima Omara tweeted, while author and journalist, Ruchika Tulshyan called out the article’s editors.
In addition to public support, many of my Black and Brown friends and colleagues messaged me to say they wished they could tell me this sort of co-opting was something new, but it wasn’t. They said, “it happens all the time” and that “big publications do this all the time.” I soon learned that I had a lot of company. Historically, Black women’s work has experienced a phenomenon that is worse than plagiarism. It’s called “erasure.” It feels like being robbed while bystanders look on and do nothing.
In the New York Times Magazine, writer Parul Sehgal defines “erasure” as “the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible.” According to Sehgal, the word “migrated out of the academy” where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts. She identifies women, minorities, the queer, and the poor as the “casualties of erasure.”
Tamara D. Anderson and Maya Anderson define erasure more personally in their paper, “The Erasure of Black Women,” published in the Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies at Swarthmore College. “To what do we owe Black women?” they ask. “Everything.” The women write that “to be Black and female in America means that you are ignored, silenced, and sometimes erased.”
Forbes Senior Contributor, Janice Gassam Asare agrees. In her article, “The Erasure of Black Women’s Contributions: From Past to Present,” she lists examples of how Black women from Sojourner Truth to Michelle Obama to Tarana Burke have been denied credit for their work or recognized for who they are. She reports how CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a story about racial bias in facial recognition while neglecting to mention the three Black women, Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Inioluwa Deborah Raji, who led critical research in the field.
This “erasure” of Black women doesn’t just happen in articles published by major news organizations but in academia as well. Delving deeper into the term, I found that according to The Journal of Negro Education, women of color in academia also struggle with getting rightful credit for their work– especially if it focuses on their own firsthand oppression.
“Because their research is frequently viewed as insignificant, these women often receive little or no support for their intellectual pursuits, especially when their work centers on racial, ethnic, and/or gender issues,” the article states.
The irony of this situation does not escape me. I spent my entire career advocating that the voices of women of color be heard. Then I myself am rendered invisible by a white woman writing about how women of color are hurt by gaslighting.
A few days after the uproar on Twitter, the writer at the NYT offered a second response, accurately mentioning my public accusations of “various transgressions” before inaccurately stating that my book was “one of many that have been published on the topic” and that “have been covered in dozens of books and have been the subject of 100s of research papers.” I asked her to list these works, especially by women of color, but she did not comply.
I must state that I personally know there are not “dozens of books” and “100s of research papers” on this topic by Black and Brown women because that was a major point I argued in my book proposal which got me my book deal.
In her final tweet, the writer offered a second apology for not knowing about my work in this area before submitting her piece for publication. She assured me she is “glad to know about it now” and that she looks forward to “reading Houssain’s book and learning from her.”
My name is spelled Hossain. What does it say about the person with whom you’re fighting erasure when she misspells your name? It says everything.