The Issues of Class, Discrimination, and Prejudice in Rebecca Skloots The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Categories: Henrietta lacks


  • Ferrante, Joan. Sociology: A Global Perspective. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.
  • Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010. Print.

Throughout the novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack, the ideas of race and how it effected this medical revolution become quite prevalent. The issue throughout is the idea of the social construction of class being a primary reason why the doctor felt justified to take cells without consent. Discrimination and prejudice come into play as Henrietta is mistreated solely based on her race and status.

The hidden reality behind medicine and racism is exposed, how doctors felt it was their job to do this and treat those of color with little to no respect. Skloot manages to immortalize Henrietta in a way different from her cells, her story, now known as one of the largest medical revolutions, allows for the world to get just a glimpse of the mistreatment that was endured.

Class is a socially constructed idea, although a universal occurrence, the meaning is contextually located because class is determined in different ways from one society to another.

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As a classification of social stratification, “people are ranked on the basis of achieved characteristics, such as merit, talent, ability, or past performance,” (Ferrante: 186). In all societies, no matter the difference in how they deem class, doctors are always placed at the top and are known to be well-respected in all communities. The doctors whom took Henrietta’s cells without permission did so because they ranked higher in class than she did.

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With their title as doctors and hers as a poor black woman, there was no reason to have her consent. Henrietta trusted the doctor because he was a doctor; that rank meant something in society, however this ignorance is what brought about the ongoing struggles the rest of the Lacks family were forced to deal with. This idea of class is a skewed idea even today, using trust in order to boost rank into a higher position, not caring for those below.

Another issue that arises within the novel is discrimination. Discrimination is an act of unequal handling of either individuals or groups based on attributes out of one’s control, such as race or other biological characteristics (Ferrante: 233). After reading the novel, it becomes evident that Henrietta does not receive proper medical treatment based on her race. During Henrietta’s lifetime the idea that whites held a superior created much disdain and disrespect towards those of color. The fact that these medical doctors felt justified to take her cells without any consent shows the lack of regard they felt towards people of color. Henrietta was a human guinea pig, although her cells were used to save lives, this does not put the injustice and indignity aside. Skloot brings up that, “since at least the 1800s, black oral history has been filled with tales of ‘night doctors’ who kidnapped black people for research. And there were disturbing truths behind those stories,” (Skloot: 165). This “tale” became an unfortunate reality for Henrietta as she became victim to what many black people had feared. The act of stealing her cells was done due to discrimination and the lack of respect these doctors had towards Henrietta. In addition to the discrimination, prejudice was another issue that arose in the novel. Prejudiceis a type of judgment about an out-group that does not change in the face of contradictory evidence and that applies to anyone who shared the distinguishing characteristics,” (Ferrante: 233). Not only does Henrietta suffer the effects of prejudice, her whole family reaps its consequences.

The results of prejudice only enhanced the state of poverty that Henrietta was also suffering. She had limited access to basic human necessities and vulnerability to predatory behavior. Even at John Hopkins Hospital, the hospital in which Henrietta underwent treatment and was created for the poor black community, racial segregation meant that black patients didn’t have equal access to health care. Henrietta even admitted, “she, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice,” (Skloot: 16). Henrietta felt forced to go to this certain hospital, where she was met with doctors who had no intention of explaining to her what exactly was happening to her body. Not only was she disrespected because of herfinancial state, her family was too. Even though their mother is the reason for the world’s largest medical revolution, strangers were given the profits that came off of Henrietta’s cells. Yet Henrietta’s children suffered so significantly, they could not even afford health insurance; for the family of the woman who created a whole new look on the medical field to not be able to benefit off of their mother’s body, solely based on the fact that doctors thought they had the right, directly shows the issues with prejudice with this event.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackstells the direct and harsh reality of what minorities face when dealing with white superiors. The stigma that class holds a higher rank than the truth, shows why doctors felt no guilt taking these cells, as they felt distinguished enough to do so. Based on the color of her skin, Henrietta was denied full and proper medical care, even at a hospital designed for poor African Americans. Along with the suffering Henrietta herself endured, her family continued to suffer even after Henrietta had passed. Not even being allowed to benefit from their mother’s disease, Henrietta’s children suffered through the insufficiency because they were unworthy of profiting. This book is a constructed investigation of a collective wrong committed by the medical institution, as well as the medical marvels to which it led. Although a horrendous story, Skloot’s sympathy towards the Lacks family is a step towards acknowledgment, righteousness, and restoration.

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The Issues of Class, Discrimination, and Prejudice in Rebecca Skloots The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (2022, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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