HeLa, White Privilege and Ethics

On Wednesday I heard author, Rebecca Skloot speak about her debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but has remained alive in one way or another in all of us through the research done on her immortal cells that were taken from her without her consent. Her cells have kept each of us alive through the various vaccinations we’ve received, she has helped others to have life through in-vitro fertilization, the cells have helped develop drugs for diseases such as Parkinsons and leukemia and the list goes on and on. The scientists who took Henrietta’s cells did not make money from the cells, but they were commercialized. Currently they are bought and sold every day the world over, and they have generated millions in profits. Henrietta’s family never saw a dime of this money, nor did they benefit from some of the very scientific breakthroughs that her cells helped create. They were poor, with little education and no health insurance, and some had serious physical and mental ailments. I’ll stop there, as this book deserves your read!

Skloot acknowledged  that she was able to write this book thanks largely to the white privilege advantages.  In the United States, folks like to think that we live in a developed country and that therefore “minorities have every right and opportunity as whites,” or statements are made that “with affirmative action, blacks actually have more leverage and opportunity now.” Skloot admirably spoke to the fact that were she not white, the white scientists in the south would not have spoken to her with the same honesty and assumed intelligence were she a black author looking to write a story on a poor black family.

Henrietta (HeLa) is alive in all of us today, not because she donated her cancer cells to cell research, but because her cells were taken from her while she was alive and without her consent. I am able to know this story and pay my respects and homage to Henrietta, because of the backwards world of white privilege with which I live. With whom do I thank?!

3 thoughts on “HeLa, White Privilege and Ethics

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. Our 8th graders have read it the last couple years, but I still haven’t. I’ll put it on my short list!


  2. This book was recently recommended to me and I too wish I’d read it earlier in my life. So grateful to Rebecca Skloot for her willingness to investigate the truth behind Henrietta Lacks and her cells.


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