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Tiffany Haddish is a successful comedian and actor who was recently profiled in GQ. In the interview, she suggests that everyone should take a teaspoon of turpentine to cure their colds, but the government doesn’t want you to know that. She also thinks that we all have worms inside our bodies and the turpentine will fix that.
Yikes. Where to start?
So, obviously (or perhaps not obviously enough), you absolutely should not drink turpentine. It’s a paint thinner, and even smelling it can make you feel sick. Haddish says “a teaspoon won’t kill you” and she may be right, but a tablespoon can kill you. Children are especially vulnerable, but even adults can die from drinking more than four ounces.
It’s easy to say that this makes Haddish an idiot, but it’s really more complex than that. She grew up poor, and here in the United States we’re not too great about providing poor people with decent medical care, leading to the proliferation of stupid folk remedies that may or may not work, and that may or may not kill you.
And more than that, Haddish grew up poor and black. She points out to GQ that drinking turpentine was common amongst slaves, and she’s correct. Again, slaves weren’t getting the greatest medical care, to put it lightly. That’s all she’s correct about, though, because she goes on to say that most slaves weren’t physically healthy because they didn’t have access to turpentine. Again: yikes.
Even once slavery was abolished, black people in the United States had no reason to use or trust established doctors. You’ve probably heard of the Tuskeegee Experiment, in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were purposely left untreated for 40 years so that doctors could study the progression of the disease. The only reason it ended was because journalists found out and exposed it. That’s just the biggest, most well-known example, but Harriet A. Washington’s book Medical Apartheid details countless other examples from US history, including the still-pervasive myth that black people feel less pain than white people or that they need a stronger dose of x-rays. She even points out that some of our historical medical heroes have racist underpinnings, as with James Marion Sims, who pioneered techniques to help heal women after they gave birth. He tested those techniques first on slaves, operating on helpless black women without even giving them anesthetic.
It’s this horrific legacy of medical cruelty that has left many black people, particularly those who are poor and under-educated, to foster an entirely justifiable distrust of doctors, scientists, and the government.
So yes, Haddish said an idiotic and dangerous thing, but also an understandable thing. Remember that the basis for this pseudoscience’s popularity amongst poor black people has its origin in rich, white, educated monsters. And speaking of, let’s hope Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t standing by to offer to Haddish a job hawking bottles of turpentine.