The intersection of racism and ableism makes navigating my chronic health conditions feel impossible.
People can rarely tell when you’re having a migraine episode. It’s like the dust swirling in the air that you can only see when illuminated by a ray of light.
Living with eczema is a different story. The skin condition makes you want to hide under long sleeves and pant legs. It absorbs all your stress and brandishes it on your skin for everyone to see.
What migraine and eczema have in common is that stress can trigger the onset of symptoms and prolong their severity and duration.
I’ve had eczema since my early teens and migraine since my early 20s. And I’m not alone. Chronic conditions tend to co-occur, requiring different strategies to manage all your symptoms.
Sometimes these strategies conflict with social norms and can cause further stigma, especially for people from marginalized communities. I’ve grown up with taunts about how South Asian people smell like curry and how our natural hair looks unkempt.
Even now, I’m bombarded with tips on how to lighten dark spots, even out my skin tone, tame my frizzy hair, or remove it altogether.
Uninformed comments about how I manage my chronic conditions have caused me similar emotional distress. Racism and ableism have a way of compounding upon each other.
At my first full-time job, my former boss told me that a colleague had complained that I had a “strong scent.” I was told that the scent caused my colleague’s headaches and inability to concentrate.
The dizzying humiliation I felt brought back memories of being followed around stores while shopping, forced to prove my identity at school, and ridiculed by classmates for having dark skin and stretch marks.
In this instance, I couldn’t tell whether the scent my boss was referring to was the hairspray I used or the lotion I wore to soothe my inflamed skin.
Because of my own struggles with migraine and allergies, I hadn’t worn perfume in years. The skin and hair care products I used were all I could afford as a grad student. But none of that mattered at that moment.
Neither my boss nor colleagues could fathom what it was like being the only Person of Color in the office while also managing my chronic conditions. It felt like their right to emotional and physical comfort mattered more than mine.
When I wrote about my experience, I heard stories from other People of Color who had been shamed by friends, classmates, and colleagues about their appearance. Whether it happened in grade school or recently at work, the encounters stung just the same.
I also received dozens of emails from strangers who told me that “the lotion thing was ridiculous,” “to go back where I came from,” and other things I wouldn’t dare repeat.
But what was most surprising was the silence from people who I thought were allies.
Those who did reach out seemed like they wanted to “enlighten” me about the connection between scented products and allergies. They assumed that I was being insensitive about other people’s chronic health conditions instead of the other way around.
Encounters like the one I had at work remain with you long after the incident. You bear it on your skin, in the furrowed lines on your face, and in the pores that become clogged with the residue of the day.
You wear it while trying to squeeze into standards of beauty and professionalism that feel like a revolving door. As hard as you try, you keep missing the opening.
I can remember being poolside as a teenager when someone asked me what time it was. Their friend interrupted to say, “Don’t ask her. She probably doesn’t even speak English.”
Words like these may be soon forgotten by the person who said them, but they become part of our cumulative histories of taunts, slurs, insults, and rejections.
These words become entangled in the stress that triggers your migraine and rashes that cover your skin.
The true impact of words like these is too big and powerful to explain, especially to people who don’t have a chronic health condition or aren’t a Person of Color. The intersection of racism and ablism has real physical and mental repercussions.
It’s easy to rush to judgment about a person’s outward appearance or the behaviors they display in public. You might see someone wearing sunglasses indoors or notice them avoiding a handshake. The person might be dealing with a migraine attack or hiding an eczema flare-up.
You don’t know what people are dealing with just by looking at them.
Many people live with more than one chronic health condition, some of which are less visible than others. It’s important to be thoughtful about the assumptions you make.
Meeting people with compassion and choosing your words carefully can go a long way toward creating inclusive spaces.
Medically reviewed on July 26, 2022
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