- Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any other racial and ethnic group in the US.
- Experts say when high-profile figures die, it draws attention to the health of underserved groups.
- Experts say it’s beyond time to address the health crisis affecting Black men.
Groundbreaking designer Virgil Abloh‘s legacy is extending far beyond the fashion world, as his recent death is inspiring necessary conversations about Black men’s health.
Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear and founder of the luxury streetwear fashion label Off-White, died Sunday of a rare and aggressive cancer called cardiac angiosarcoma, according to a statement posted to his Instagram.
“He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture,” the statement read.
The cancer, which can block blood flow out of the heart, has a low survival rate.
“Once a cardiac sarcoma has progressed to the point that symptoms begin to occur, it has often metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body, making treatment challenging,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Abloh has spotlighted cardiac angiosarcoma, as Google searches for the disease grew tenfold since his death was announced.
Derek Griffith, an oncology professor at Georgetown University said that, on a practical level, Abloh’s death could inspire more people to take any changes in health seriously since many people looked up to him and admired the barrier breaking work he did.
“It’s hard to be hopeful that this one incident will get people to wake up, but hopefully for some it will trigger them to stop and look more closely at some of these issues,” the founding director of the Georgetown Racial Justice Institute said.
Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any other racial and ethnic group in the US, according to the CDC. Experts attribute this discrepancy to several causes, including racial discrimination, high rates of incarceration, and unaffordable and insufficient health resources targeted to this group.
Aaron Perry, the founder of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association — a health center in Madison that supports Black boys’ and men’s health — said that he has personally observed more patients who want to prioritize their health after high profile deaths of Black men.
“After John Singleton died, people started coming in to check their blood pressure,” Perry told Insider. “The same thing happened after Chadwick Boseman passed away, where people started asking questions about cancer screenings.”
People of color often sacrifice their personal health for their work
As many took to social media to share tributes to Abloh, the fashion icon’s unexpected death has also prompted criticism that society values the legacy and work of people of color more than their health.
Some commentators online took issue with phrasing Abloh’s battle with cancer as a silent struggle, asserting that the public is not entitled to information about his diagnosis and speculating that perhaps he decided to keep his illness secret so as not to be penalized by the fashion industry.
Although workplace discrimination based on illness or discrimination is illegal, such discrimination can appear in more insidious ways as people with chronic illness or disability face workplaces that were not designed for them.
“A lot of ppl are hiding illnesses because of ableism in the corporate world,”a music artist who goes by the name Jordan Occasionally, wrote in a tweet that received more than 29,000 likes as of Tuesday afternoon, read.
“We can’t be shocked when we find out about ‘hidden illnesses’ when industries like Virgil’s and Chadwick’s don’t celebrate disabled folks.”
—jordan • they/them (@jd_occasionally) November 28, 2021
The death of the leading designer drew comparisons to that of acclaimed actor Chadwick Boseman. Boseman, who is best known for starring in Black Panther and a host of bipics depicting prominent Black figures, died of colon cancer in 2020.
Similarly to Abloh, Boseman had been battling health issues for years, unbeknownst to most of his fans.
The public does not know the specifics of Abloh’s medical history, the thought processes behind his decision to shield his diagnosis from the public, or whether stepping back from his career would have bolstered his health.
—Anyway, Britney (@yosoymichael) November 28, 2021
Still experts say that the fact that he was an incredibly accomplished individual invites a dialogue about how successful people of color are sometimes forced to choose between their health and their legacy.
Black men face increased stigma when it comes to discussing their health
Men in particular are prone to working through health problems, per Griffith. He cited the idea of John Henryism. Coined by the epidemiologist Sherman James, John Henryism describes the phenomenon whereby people who push themselves harder to cope with chronic stresses like racial discrimination experience increased health issues.
—Alison C. Rollins (@AlisonCRollins) November 29, 2021
“Working up until the end of an illness is not necessarily unique, but it’s really the context of Black men making these choices that we’re starting to see more conversation about,” Griffith said.
“If he had stopped working a few years ago, there were things he wouldn’t have accomplished,” he added.
Griffith noted that “as much as we critique people for making choices like this where they prioritize their work over their health,” society most often “celebrate[s] people for making choices like this.”
“We don’t want to be judgemental about the choice he made [to continue working], he said. “But these illnesses, particularly at an age of 41, those kind of things happening in the media do tend to get people to stop and think about, ‘hey I’m 41, is this something that could happen to me?'”
Perry added that while the details surrounding Abloh’s decision to not go public with his diagnosis before his death are unknown, there’s a need to end the stigma of discussing health among Black men.
“We need to sound the alarm that Black men are experiencing a health crisis,” Perry said. “We have to remove the stigma of being sick in our communities.”
He added that “it breaks my heart that I couldn’t be there for” his own close friend whole was ill before he died.
“There’s this feeling that if you’re a Black man and you get sick, you’re somehow a failure,” he said. “So we need to do a better job of reaching out and encouraging conversations and telling people, ‘I love you too much to not care about your health.'”