The Racist Reasons why Tiffany Haddish Drinks Turpentine

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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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Of course, before 1900 or so, NOT getting medical care wasn’t such a terrible thing.

    When Tuskegee started, the only treatment for syphilis was Salvarsan, or other arsenic compounds. They were so toxic that only about 15% of patients were able to complete the treatment, which often had ghastly side-effects. The real crime starts when sulfa drugs, and especially penicillin, became available and the pox could be treated fairly safely and easily.

    (Hmm. realizing that I’m quoting that 15% figure from memory, which adds a few grains of salt. I suspect that the use of arsenicals did improve over the decades that treatment was used.)

    1. Another common treatment was mercury, which actually dates back to the 11th century. (So, yeah, no one blame us for syphilis. Actually, Galen describes a disease very similar to syphilis, so, yeah, LONG history before Columbus.) Again, highly toxic, not something I would recommend.

      Actually, medicine was very much tied to alchemy back then, so they used mercury for practically everything. And yes, that is as toxic as it sounds. (Then again, I’m sure people in the year 3000 will call us barbarians.)

      1. You neglected to mention how the mercury was administered for syphilis. You fill a thin glass tube, and slid it up the urethra. Then you tap it with a hammer to shatter the glass. And this would only give temporary relief, so would have to be given periodically.

        In any case, the Tuskegee experiment (crime) took place after modern treatments were available.

    2. Sulfonamides have never been effective against Treponema pallidum.

      Penicillin is not a ‘sulfa.’ After more than 70 years of use, penicillin remains effective against syphilis at all stages.

    3. That cutoff time depends on the disease. I would argue that medical science remains in an extremely primitive state in some areas even today

      . Look at treatment of back pain, or any chronic pain for that matter – overuse of opioids is a big problem and we need to fast track development of the many promising alternatives on the horizon.

  2. Rebecca Watson,

    Also slaves weren’t healthy not because they didn’t have access to turpentine, but because they had to work ridiculously long hours, usually for ever single day of their lives, and it was legal to beat them for simply not working fast enough, which often happened, even if they couldn’t work fast enough.

  3. Europeans used to use tansy as the traditional cure for intestinal worms.

    It was used during Lent to knock off parasites from all the fish they ate in that season.

    Again, same problem, the active principle thujone is toxic to liver and brain, but they usually got away with it because levels were low in the plant during that season.

    I would not blame anybody poor and uneducated in an unequal society resorting to traditional methods in desperation.

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