This Is What I’m Sayin’

I have been trying to learn more about race and institutional racism. It’s slow work, mostly because I am more of a thinker than a doer, so each new idea I read about or learn takes me some time to consider and digest. Also, it’s summer and I get easily distracted by drinks on my deck. But this article about Black people and sunscreen landed in my email box and is a good one for making me go, huh, and for shining a light on things I don’t think about. It’s very mundanity I think speaks volumes.

Sunscreen was also on my mind because recently a Black coworker brought up this very topic. She said she didn’t know the she should wear sunscreen, and she was headed to Florida in a few weeks. I had a few vague notions about it. I know that Black people have more melanin than people with lighter skin. I have friends with darker skin who stay out of the sun because they don’t want to get any darker. But that’s a whole different issue.

What caught my interest in this article was that it takes something everyone gets told by the medical establishment  — we should all wear sunscreen because in the 1970s, researchers linked sun exposure to skin cancer. And then the article digs a little deeper. Those studies pretty much excluded dark-skinned people, but everyone gets the same blanket warning. Like the heart attack studies that focused on white men, and we were all told what symptoms to look for based on them. Then researchers discover that, oh wait, women tend to have different symptoms. And Black people were mostly left out of those studies, so there’s more work there.

According to the article, “Because people of color are often left out of clinical trials and treatments, there is very little research available about dark-skinned people and skin cancer, which raises questions about who is being considered when organizations make these public health recommendations.”

The few studies that exist show that the kinds of skin cancer Black people tend to get may be unrelated to sun exposure. Adewole Adamson, MD, a dermatologist and the director of the pigmented lesion clinic at The University of Texas at Austin’s Dell School of Medicine points out that “If UV exposure was such a problem for skin cancer, you’d see a massive epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa,” he added. “They don’t have the same level of sunscreen promotion that they do here. And you hear nothing about it because there probably is no association.”

So you think, OK, if it turns out Black people don’t need sunscreen, what’s the big deal? Using it can’t hurt. But it turns out maybe it can. Some sunscreens use chemicals to block the sun and they are just now doing studies about how much our bodies absorb the chemicals. These chemicals can enter our systems and do who knows what to us. Life is all about weighing risks; as a very pale white person at higher risk for skin cancer, I would rather take my chances with the chemicals or switch to the zinc-based kind of sunscreen, which is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, than play skin cancer roulette.

But Black people may not need to expose themselves to the chemicals. Or maybe they are at risk for a different kind of skin cancer with different symptoms and causes. But we don’t really know  because we only studied white people. Like men and women and heart attacks.

We only have one piece of the puzzle. And that’s what systemic racism does. It doesn’t always scream like a Cheeto flea tweet; sometimes it gives the stamp of approval to the dusty pages of the medical journals, saying, you’re done, team of white researchers. Because systemic racism works to make Black people invisible, it suppresses good scientific questions — is this research true for all skin colors? For men and women? What aren’t we looking at? What aren’t we asking?

I mean, it’s just sunscreen. What’s the big deal?

You may need to sign up for a free New York Time account to read the whole article.

Should Black People Wear Sunscreen?


  1. Wow Sandy, that’s a type of rascim that few people will ever get the chance to think about and something that never would have occured to me had you not pointed it out. But you’re inquiry into this just leads one to ponder evermore about the concept of racism itself.

    I have thought about racism at times and try to logically figure out why it exists. I wonder about what makes this certain type of categorization people make of other people so uniquely damning. Maybe using the terms black and white are to much of a broad term. If we all truly are more the same as humans, is it possible the terms themselves could be part of the problem?

    When I think of racism, I think of black and white and it’s really skin color isn’t it that is categorizing these two groups? And what about the worlds largest skin color group being yellow or Asian? I’m not hearing much about this group in discussions about racism.

    Is racism just a senseless feud between between humans with brown/black skin and humans with pink/white skin? I dare say if you put pink/white skinned people in one big group or you put brown/black skinned people in a group, you are going to have an endless variety of catagories in each group. You are going to have wide variations with what these people do, how they behave and what they think in both groups. What they will have in common each group is that they are all humans with either pink/white skin or brown/black skin.

    I may have limited experience living up in an area of the country with very little skin color diversity, but I can’t imagine that any human you meet with brown/black skin can immediately be put neatly into the broad category of brown/black skinned humans. And that goes the same with the pink/white skinned humans. Logically it seems all so absolutely ludicrous!

    The area I live in with its lack of skin color diversity, I sometimes find myself practicing reversed racism. Once in a great while I meet a brown/black skinned fellow human being, I end up being overly accommodating as I try too hard not to be a racist. This behavior confuses me when I look logically and leads to me pondering evermore……………………..

    1. Such a wonderful thoughtful comment! Thank you! It’s a big, complicated topic, which is why I’ve been having trouble writing about it more. And I think it does take time to see, digest, understand. For me, these small insights help me get my head around it. I highly recommend The book White Fragility by Robin DIAngelo. It’s simply written and helps start to frame this complicated issue. I will try to blog about it soon! Thanks again for reading and being willing to ask questions and wonder.

  2. Very interesting! Systemic racism really does impact every part of life. You bring up a good point about looking at the sample from the research. Skin cancer runs in my family. Here in Florida we put on sunscreen whenever we go out! I hadn’t heard about sunscreen chemicals harming us. I’ll look into that–but like you, I’ll take the chances with the sunscreen!

    Thank you, Sandy!
    Traci Starkweather

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