The world already had so many things stacked against Ericka Hart when she was born a black femme who would eventually be diagnosed with breast cancer at 28. And she isn’t an anomaly.
Hart is like so many black women in America and beyond. We have a higher rate of being diagnosed with and dying of breast cancer. We also are the least likely to be listened to by our doctors. Racism toward medical patients is real, and Hart is actively fighting to reverse some of these discriminatory practices with education. And she does so wearing different hats.
She’s a professor at Columbia School of Social Work, a sex education expert, an advocate for breast cancer awareness and representation, and a model. She is the representation we don’t typically see reflected when it comes to raising awareness and gaining education about women’s physical and sexual health.
For “We Built This,” Hart spoke to HuffPost about changing the face of health education, her journey with breast cancer and tearing down medical racism one brick at a time.
How did you get into sex education?
I started doing sex ed, I guess, professionally, or paid, if you will, 10 years ago. I started in the Peace Corps, but before that I had been using whatever Google search I could do to help my friends figure out what was happening with their bodies. And they were having sex with people, and I was helping them navigate those conversations and figure out, you know, are you pregnant? Like, do you have an STI? Do you have this thing called an STD? No, it shouldn’t hurt when you have sex. Like, having those conversations with them, talking to their parents about utilizing birth control and making sure their parents know this isn’t a bad thing. In high school, one of my friends was like, why don’t you become like a sex therapist, like Dr. Ruth? And I was like, who the hell is Dr. Ruth?
And then from that moment I just, you know, the same ways that I found information about sex was the same ways I found out that this is an actual field that you can work in. So I started in the Peace Corps as an HIV/AIDS volunteer in Ethiopia, and you can do anything under that scope of work, but I was, like, I want to teach. I think teaching really provides liberation for people and really frees people. So it was me standing in middle school and high school classrooms, in the middle of Ethiopia, in a small town, saying things like oral, anal, vaginal, like, what’s sex? Like, saying that in a classroom, and the whole classroom erupting in laughter.
And I was having very candid conversations, me talking to administration about why this is important, which is most of a sex educator’s job, for the most part, is convincing people that this work is important and that it needs to be present in their schools and needs to be present at home. It needs to be a conversation that’s being had. That’s where I started, and I just haven’t stopped. Right now I’m an adjunct professor at Columbia University. I teach grad school students a gender course and also a human sexuality course, to support them in their future social work practice.
For the most part, I work with all ages, but I started with high school. I love middle school. I’ve done elementary. I think this work should just be accessible to everybody.
Sometimes I think that we don’t happen upon these revolutionary or progressive works or ideas until we unpack and unlearn. Was there a process of unlearning to get to this?
Wow, the process of unlearning.... You go into a grad school program that’s specific to human sexuality, any grad school program, you’re going into it because you want to do this work, because you’re going to grad school, you better be wanting to do that work or you’re going to spend a lot of money. So I came into a sex program, like a lot of people come into a human sexuality program and they’re like, I know everything about sex. But the best sex educator doesn’t know everything about sex and makes that blatantly clear that they don’t, but they’re willing to do the work to go and research and affirm peoples’ experiences.
To be specific, the gaps, for me... we were bombarded [in January] with the docuseries about R. Kelly, and I think a larger conversation is around sexual assault and sexual violence. And that was something in my scope of understanding human sexuality, I didn’t necessarily include in that. And it’s a huge aspect of it, and it’s a major part that therapists deal with, with talking to people who could, perhaps, take actions to harm someone, working with survivors. Like, this is a conversation that we need to be having.
I would say a gap that I wanted to have affirmed was bridging the gap of race, gender and sex. And I feel like a lot of times when people talk about sex, they don’t talk about it with race, they don’t talk about it with class, they don’t talk about it with being able-bodied or disabled. And I’d say being a black queer femme, and then later in my life being diagnosed with breast cancer, sex looks different for me. The ways that I experience it, the messages that I receive about my body, that all impacts me on a sexual level, if you will.
So that was a gap, for me, in understanding if I feel this way, that means lots of people feel this way. That means that we can’t just have this whitewashed understanding of sex, and sexuality and gender. We need to actually make it accessible and make it so everybody gets it, not putting a chapter in a book about, OK, now we’re going to talk about black people, or now we’re going to talk about indigenous people, now we’re going to talk about ... No, it’s got to be across the board, centered on us, and then everybody else gets included as well.
In reading [your past] interviews, I recognized one thing that we have in common was seeing the women in our life impacted by breast cancer, but not necessarily seeing those women who look like us represented when it came to different advocacy work, different awareness projects, you know, things like that. When you were 28, and when you got that diagnosis, how did that change your outlook on how you viewed either womanhood, or even just your body, or yourself, as a sexual being?
I’ve always thought womanhood, or being a woman, was a little strange, like it didn’t fit for me. That’s why I identify as a nonbinary femme. Like, so very clearly that is my gender identity now. But I’ll say, when I was diagnosed I wasn’t necessarily clear in how... I never had it that my breasts were my womanhood, or that they were my gender identity, or that my vulva was my gender identity. I was more attached to my hair, and my lips and my skin, right? And my butt. Like, those were things that were connected to my gender, but not breasts. They were just sexualized.
Most of the time it was just like, you’re curvy. It wasn’t like it was parts of my body. It was like, this is just who you are, and that’s it. But I will say that having my breasts removed and now wanting to have a baby, thinking about I’ll never be able to breastfeed, right? That’s more painful than this is .... You know, I have breast implants, so I can rock .... My breast cancer surgeon gave me cleavage, right? You can literally surgically put that there.
So I have all those things, but the part that I want to do is breastfeed, and I’m not going to be able to do that, and that’s challenging for me to deal with. And I’m not even there. I’m not pregnant, so I’m not even aware of what the emotions are going to be once the child gets here. Like, what are my feelings going to be around my breasts then? I feel like I haven’t developed this relationship with my breasts in that way. They have just kind of been there, because what else is their purpose other than sexual? And even sexually, to be frank, I didn’t really necessarily utilize my nipples in that way. So it wasn’t a huge loss for me.
So, yeah, and it was just like, OK, what are other ways we can explore my body sexually, instead of just going to oh, wait, where are the nipples? Well, now there’s a scar that you can explore that feels. There’s total sensation there, which a lot of breast cancer survivors don’t get. So let’s explore that, you know? It just looks different, and exploring the look different, if you will. I feel like that’s been my whole life. It’s like, it looks different, so let’s explore that. Let’s validate that. Let’s not resist it and wish that it looked the other way, or wish that it was some other way.
I think that because society views especially, like, the femme form as kind of as a utility, I think that that is why a lot of people maybe don’t understand, or don’t explore, their bodies, or feel shame about exploring their bodies. That conversation is really interesting to me, especially when I look at it from a black lens, because there are so many layers and so many nuances. Relatedly, I want to shift gears and talk about your medical advocacy work. When black women go into the doctor’s office, whether it be our OB/GYN, whether it be just our regular doctor, whatever we are going into these medical practices for, we aren’t listened to or taken seriously. What have been your experiences, and what has led you to speaking up, and speaking out, against racial bias in the medical field?
I have used my body in those ways, to advocate against medical racism, and also used my understanding of the medical field personally and just what I’ve read to go in and educate and use my background, because so much of my sex education work is racial justice, that that also comes in play when I talk about medical racism. And black maternal death, or black maternal health, [which] was at its worst in 2018 and 2017. So that is directly linked to sex education.
And then, when we talk about breast cancer, there isn’t a large amount of black breast cancer survivors that are present in advocacy campaigns. When we come around to October, everything is pink, and ribbons and white. And also middle class, and essentially well-to-do and has a whole family unit that’s within the home. I didn’t see that representation beyond class. It really wasn’t there for race at all. And black women die at faster rates to breast cancer than white women do. So that was terrifying to me, to hear that, and then see us not represented in advocacy because of where, in advocacy, perhaps we’ll touch our breasts, and we’ll figure out if we have breast cancer or not.
And also the aspect of gender, because breast cancer is always centered around cisgender women, and not all cisgender women ... or it’s not just cisgender women that are impacted by breast cancer. Any gender can be impacted by breast cancer. So, I found that was super important, so I just started going into schools. I took my shirt off to show my breast cancer scars, and I try to do it when it’s much warmer, at music festivals, at random places, at bars, wherever I could be seen, photo shoots, wherever I could be seen to take up space there. But to not just take up space for breast cancer advocacy, but to also be like, look, I get to be on a runway, right? And during fashion week, topless. You get to see me as this model, and I’m also a breast cancer survivor, I’m also black, I’m also queer. I’m not just one identity that you want to pull out, right?
And I feel like that’s what happens when we walk into a medical institution. We become one identity that you want to ignore. And I want people to see all of us. I want people to see the nuance of blackness, and they don’t. They oftentimes see one thing, and then that’s what either has them resist, or fetishize or want something from us, and I’m tired of that.
Who are some people in black history, whether we know their names or not, that you look to, that inspire your work?
Henrietta Lacks is one, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks. Even the people that don’t have names, Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy are three slaves that were essentially mutilated for the sake of creating things like the speculum in gynecology by J. Marion Sims, whose statue was just taken down in Harlem and moved to Brooklyn due to a really incredible, and one of my closest friends, activist doing that work.
So their names are really present for me, that their bodies were really used as medical experiments so people can go and get a Pap smear, right? And that just makes me think of how often we’re used. Their existence really guides my work. I go into every classroom and I ask, Who are they? And they couldn’t tell me. But when I ask who’s George Washington, everybody knows. People always know white people, and these black slaves don’t even have a last name. Those are three people, those are first names, that we know of, right?
So that really guides that. Their story, that needs to be told, and all I know from their story is their pain, and that’s really shitty. Like, I know that they had a whole life, right? I know that they had, probably, children. I know that they had feelings. I know that they had good days, bad days, right? There’s nuance there, but all I could tell you is the pain part. That really moves me to talk about that, and not just use their pain to change something but to actually have it be that it’s no longer ... like, that it never happens again, one, and also that we relate to black femmes in a way that’s actually powerful, in a way that gives them humanity. And I feel like we don’t know that. I mean, we’re all Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy walking around.
How did you find your voice?
I think I just got tired, you know? Like I just got tired of mincing my words. Ebony always says that to me, my partner, he’s like, “Stop mincing your words. Stop being afraid to say what makes you and other people uncomfortable. Just say it, because you’re holding on to it, and then you’re walking away upset that you didn’t say it, or you’re walking away because ... hurt, because what you should have said is now impacting you.” And I’m like, “OK, fine.”
Like, I think I just was like I’m just going to say it. I’m just going to be ... I’m just going to say what’s there. And I still have my moments where I don’t, where I’m like ... maybe I shouldn’t have said that. But generally speaking, when I have that feeling, I probably did my job.
What do you feel like you’ve built?
What do I feel like I’ve built? I feel like I’ve built conversations. I feel like I’ve built conversations around the nuance that exists around gender. I guess, built upon, because everything I say has already been said, right? Like, my ancestors have already said these things. I’m just forwarding the message.
Conversations about race, conversations about sexuality. I feel like sexuality wasn’t as prominent on the internet as it is now, and I just want to continue to build on that. I want to continue to contribute to that conversation in a way that centers us. And it’s really easy to talk about sex, and just talking about sex I don’t have to talk about race, and it’s just not true.
I think that’s what I’ve built, yeah. And I think with my partner, too, with Ebony I’ve built this example of black queer love that’s really healthy, and powerful, and revolutionary and fun. I feel like another thing with black bodies, it’s either labor or it’s pain. And I think, even as a teacher, people expect me to always be teaching, and no, sometimes I just want to, you know, hang out. Sometimes I just want to cuddle or just get a laugh about random stuff. Like, you know, there’s more to me than just what the internet sees.
So I want to continue building on the ... I guess the mediocrity of black folks, too. Like, we can be mediocre. We’re always considered, you know, amazing, and the best, and put on pedestals, and that’s oftentimes so people can remain lower than us so that they can continue to be victimized, and they never see our humanity. So I’m interested in black folks being ... you know, gaining humility. That’s what I want to build on.
Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.