Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Race

By Rebecca Skloot

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Despite Deborah's claim that her mother's story isn't about "white or black," Skloot shows us pretty convincingly in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that institutionalized racism was alive and well. It influenced the relationship between doctor and patient (think "night doctors") and fueled unethical scientific research.

Race affects the Lacks family's access to healthcare and education and how the scientific community treats them. Because this largely white community can't even fathom or care what the Lacks family needs in order to understand HeLa, researchers cause a lot of harm and anxiety. And there's no denying, it hits the family in the wallet: they're given no share in the mega-profits earned by biotech companies from Henrietta's cells.

Questions About Race

  1. How would you characterize the relationship between the medical community and the African American community in this book?
  2. How does language contribute to the friction between the world of research and the Lacks family?
  3. In what ways do cultural beliefs and expectations make the HeLa story difficult for the Lacks family to accept?
  4. In what ways does the scientific community institutionalize discriminatory behavior? In other words, how do they make it part of the working structure of their community?

Chew on This

Hopkins might have respected Henrietta's autonomy more if she was white.

Blacks bore the brunt of unethical medical research.

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