Ericka posing with badass yellow paint and a flower crown against a pink background

The Feministing Five: Ericka Hart

Queer activist and sex educator Ericka Hart is revealing her double mastectomy to the world.

In 2014, the then-28 year old Ericka was diagnosed with breast cancer months short of her wedding day, in the midst of working towards her master’s degree in human sexuality. Following her diagnosis and subseuquent recovery, Ericka found herself frustrated with the lack of representation of black women in the national discourse of breast cancer and survivorship. In an effort to raise awareness and provide visibility for others like her, Ericka boldly went topless at Brooklyn’s Afropunk festival, looking serene and joyful, the epitome of #BlackGirlMagic.

On her AfroPunk blog, Erica explained the thought process behind her choice: “I went topless at Afropunk to challenge the notion that “female-bodied” people can’t take their shirt off due to some androcentric, understated rule that it should not happen in public. I took my shirt off at Afropunk to not only to be seen as a cancer warrior, but to reclaim my sexuality. Breast cancer patients are so often painted as walking inspirational beings, thus effacing any opportunity to be seen as sexy or erotic. I resist the notion that because my nipples are now long, stunning scars I am no longer a sexual being. It never went away.”

Since her AfroPunk photos made her a viral sensation, Ericka’s been on a crusade to educate the public about the importance of breast self-exams and the intersections between race, sexuality, and chronic illness, as well as complicating the dominant cultural narrative of how cancer is portrayed.

For this week’s Feministing Five, I chatted with Ericka about why nipples are a privilege, how her sex ed work informs her breast cancer activism, the importance of understanding historical trauma in the medical sphere, and more! Catch her on Twitter @iHartEricka.

Senti Sojwal: In an interview you did with Bitch Media, you discussed how your plastic surgeon struggled to find examples of black women with mastectomy scars. Have you found your own community of black women breast cancer survivors, and what does it mean for you to be able to share and discuss this experience with other women like you?

Ericka Hart: You know, not really. I met with someone today and they asked me the same question. I haven’t found that community. There have been black women who have reached out to me who have had double mastectomies or breast cancer but I haven’t found a network in New York necessarily. People reach out, but I wouldn’t say I have a community in that. I will say that not just people with breast cancer have reached out to me, but it’s also been people who are black, people who are black and queer, especially femme-presenting people. They’ve shared with me that my pictures make a difference for them, that they may never have had breast cancer but they appreciate the body positivity. That’s been really cool, that people see that this is beyond just breast cancer. It would be nice to have the community — it makes such a difference to have people to lean on who’ve had similar experiences, to have people to relate to.

Senti Sojwal: How has your experience as a sex educator informed your experience as a breast cancer survivor, or impacted it? What are the intersections there?

Ericka Hart: This is such an awesome question. Thank you so much for asking this. You are the only person who has asked me! I always bring it up. So, sometimes you don’t find your calling, it finds you. My mom passed away from breast cancer when I was 13. When I was going through my master’s program in human sexuality people would ask, are you going to do your work around breast cancer? I’d been working with adolescents for the past ten years or so, so I would always say no, I want to raise awareness about youth and pleasure and advocate for young people’s right to explore that truth. I had loved that work. When I was diagnosed, I started noticing how much we don’t talk about sex and chronic illness and disability. My background as a sex educator has informed my experience as a breast cancer survivor because I have distinction in this area, and when I do something like go to the doctor’s office I see how there’s not a space to designate various genders, or a place to check sexuality or orientation. When I go to get a mammogram, the person may ask if I’m pregnant. That’s triggering as someone who doesn’t necessarily have sex to get pregnant. Whenever I show up somewhere, I’m a sexuality educator. I hear through that education, through that distinction. I created a curriculum for breast cancer survivors — those who are in treatment or finishing, just around exploring their pleasure, because no one talked to me about it. It was my final project of my master’s program, and 40 pages. I haven’t been actively shopping it around, but I do share that that’s something that I do, and I speak about it with educators and physicians. People aren’t talking to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities about sex and sexuality. I want to share my experience as a black queer person.

Senti Sojwal: How has your experience with breast cancer affected your relationship to your body in ways that you didn’t anticipate?

Ericka Hart: With my chronic illness, I’ve been exploring this idea of beauty and what is beautiful and what is sexy and dismantling that. As if that is supposed to carry me through life. As if that is the most important thing. It’s made me so much more conscious. Nipples are a privilege! I used to practice hot yoga four to five days a week. Afterwards, you’re always super sweaty. I would take my shirt off, no issue. I would never care. After cancer, I really had to think about how different my body looked. I would think, why am I nervous to take my top off because I look different? What’s that about? We don’t celebrate body diversity as much as we say we do. To the point where I’m in the bathroom with people who have presumable similar bodies, but I’m afraid to take my shirt off. It’s had me check myself. It’s now a real life experience that I have.

Senti Sojwal: According to the American Cancer Society, the rate of diagnosis of breast cancer in black women has steadily been on the rise. Death rates for black women have been high historically due to a number of factors, one of them being that black women are most often diagnosed in later stages of cancer. What do you wish more people knew about how black women may be differently affected by this disease than their white counterparts?

Ericka Hart: I wish that people understood historical trauma and acknowledged institutionalized racism in the medical system. As a black person, my parents raised me to go to the doctor even though they had so much inherited trauma around it. My dad had a wisdom tooth pulled without anesthesia when he was in the military because he didn’t trust that they were going to take care of him. This is all related to Tuskegee, Sara Baartman, this is all stuff that lives in our bodies. We don’t trust, and rightfully so, that the medical system is going to support us, not just use and abuse our bodies. And then when you get to the medical institution, they’re coming with all these assumptions about our bodies that are all based in institutionalized racism. They tell us, myself included, not to get mammograms until we’re older, even though our history indicates that we should be getting them sooner. I don’t even know if breastcancer.org has black people on their website. Breast cancer is misrepresented. If you misrepresent breast cancer, why would I think that illness has anything to do with me? Where do I go, if every single commercial has a white woman that’s single, in the suburbs, with four kids? I’m not represented in that conversation. People are surprised by my photos because they don’t know that this can happen to someone that looks like them. I’m really connected to social justice and to Black Lives Matter, and the thing is that when we say that we’re not just talking about police brutality. Black Lives Matter means so much more. In the system of the United States, we are not designed to still be alive. Of course the medical system is not going to be there for us. There needs to be so much support for queer people as well. I would love to just sit down with all the doctors of the world and do cultural competency training. It’s so necessary! Medical students receive two to four hours of sex education. That is obscene. If you want to make medical institutions inclusive, put the knowledge in medical school. Start doing something as simple as a role play, so doctors know how to ask about pronouns. A trans man, Jay Kallio, recently passed away because he was misdiagnosed and his doctors didn’t want to treat him because they had aversions to him being trans. That is insanely problematic. That is the medical establishment failing queer bodies. I live in New York City, so I feel fine coming out as queer. For people in areas where they don’t feel safe, or are not out, they aren’t going to want to share that with their doctor.

Senti Sojwal: What do you most want to change about the way people with cancer are portrayed in our culture?

Ericka Hart: I really want the morbidity and sadness to stop. It’s not just with cancer, it’s pervasive across any chronic illness or disability. We’re just very ableist. I always feel really icky when people put their opinions on me when I share that I have had breast cancer. They’ll often say that it’s really sad. And I have to think, why does that make me feel so bad? And it’s because actually, I’m not sad. I don’t experience that at all, you’re just putting your stuff on me and assuming that because I have this chronic illness that means I’m sad. That’s just not true. Also, if I didn’t have this, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be sad. I navigate trauma and triggers all day long, well before breast cancer. This is now a new thing I have to navigate. It’s sad, it’s happy, it’s everything. I just wish that we would transform how we look at chronic illness and disability. We might actually have wheelchair walkways and make all places accessible. Sex education could really be inclusive of all bodies. Maybe one day there would be a breast cancer double mastectomy patient in a movie that has nothing to do with death and dying and their illness, but everything to do with them falling in love and having a relationship and then that’s it. We still live full lives. I’m in a relationship, I love my partner, I want to talk about that!

Photos courtesy of Ericka Hart

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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