by Quinn Gabrielle Cantor
Quinn is a mathematics major living in Jamaica Plain, MA, but born in the Philippines. Quinn rhetorically analyzes Linda Villarosa’s essay from the 1619 Project by The New York Times by investigating how Villarosa’s “intended audience and purpose ultimately culminated into her published essay.” Quinn says her analysis is supported both by the rhetorical knowledge gained in her Composition I course and by a history class she took in high school that investigated race relations and discrimination. Quinn’s experiences as a student in both the Philippines and the United States has made her “deeply care about the importance of a high-quality and affordable education.” She writes that the quality of any education “should not be determined by the amount of money that people can afford to spend” as it allows us “to have a good job, create a better life, and even improve our community as a whole.”
Quinn’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.
The 1619 Project is a project from The New York Times dedicated to examining the legacy of slavery in the United States. The New York Times Magazine states: “The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Most of the writers for the project who were carefully selected to write about a specific topic are black—a deliberate choice as part of the project’s goal to put black voices and culture at the center of American history. Linda Villarosa, one of the first selected writers for The 1619 Project, wrote an essay entitled “How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today.” In the essay, Villarosa delves into the medical abuse black enslaved people suffered from white doctors who experimented on them to study the “racial myths” that black people have a higher tolerance for pain, have weaker lungs, have thicker skin and many more. Villarosa explains the connections between these medical abuses and the justification by slave owners to cruelly mistreat their black enslaved people, as well as how these racial myths still exist in our modern American healthcare system, thus creating further racial inequality. However, one of the problems that The 1619 Project, as a whole, faces is that slavery is a highly divisive topic – particularly in the context of a country such as the United States where political, racial, and economic divisions are growing and deepening. Thus, Villarosa’s main challenge becomes: How can she persuade her audience that the legacy of slavery still exists in our societal structures and systems using the least divisive language? In this essay, I am going to discuss how Villarosa’s audience creates rhetorical constraints, as well as how her audience contributes to her purpose.
Establishing the Audience
First things first, who is the audience? According to Halevi, the audience is “the intended recipient of your rhetoric.” In other words, they are who the rhetor is trying to persuade. Some people might immediately think that Villarosa’s audience could be black people—after all, The 1619 Project is about the connections between slavery and modern racial inequalities. Others might think that the audience are people who are not on the conservative end: liberals, progressives, independents, and non-partisans. Since the goal of The 1619 Project is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” which directly challenges the notion many conservatives hold that the history of our country began with the signing of The Declaration of Independence in 1776, or perhaps the arrival of the European settlers in 1492, thus it might not cater to Americans who are politically aligned with the right.
However, in determining Villarosa’s audience, we must consider that one critical connection with the audience is the rhetor’s purpose, or the “intended goal of your communication” (Halevi). As Halevi further defines, the audience “has to be someone who is capable of helping you accomplish your purpose.” Villarosa’s essay clearly intends to inform the audience that racist ideologies still exist with the healthcare system, and that these racist ideologies were rooted in slavery. Keeping these purposes in mind, the audience are most likely not black people because compared to any other racial groups, they have the most connection with slavery and the perpetuating racial inequalities that arose from it. In other words, most black people are already aware of racism within healthcare.
On the other hand, white people, regardless of their political alignment, are likely to have the biggest disconnect with experiencing racism. Villarosa provides an example of this in her essay: “A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.” The results of this survey establish that many white medical students still believe myths about black people’s health and physiology. It is clear that this racial myth, in which black people have a higher pain tolerance than white people, is racist, as it implies that black people’s skin is inherently different than white people’s, and it falsely leads to the assumption that black patients don’t need as much help managing pain as white patients since black people are “less sensitive.” Although healthcare is only one sector of our society, Villarosa’s point shows that black people, compared to white people, experience more racism in our country generally. And although American society has become much more progressive over time, many white people are still unaware about the true extent of slavery and, by extension, the racism black people still face today.
Furthermore, historically, white people were often the perpetrators of racist acts in our country, exhibited by things such as owning black enslaved people, convict leasing, lynching black people, and many others. In fact, Villarosa provides examples of people in her essay who were enslavers and doctors—such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Moseley, and J. Marion Sims—all of whom were white, and all of whom believed in racial myths and used those myths to justify mistreating black people. Villarosa’s purpose then, is to not just inform white audiences about the racism black people faced during the time of slavery and still face in modern-day healthcare, but also to make them understand that they are significant players in the history of racism in our country. This gives her white audience a direct responsibility to acknowledge and confront the racist legacies of white people and their very own racial myths—a chance to help Villarosa “accomplish her purpose” (Halevi). Thus, I believe that Villarosa’s audience members are most likely white people.
Villarosa’s Rhetorical Strategy: “White” Omission
Now that the audience is defined, Villarosa’s biggest challenge has yet to be addressed: How does Villarosa discuss the topics of racism within healthcare and slavery to inform her white audience without offending them? In order to do so, Villarosa understands and makes use of multiple rhetorical constraints, or the “guidelines or limits on language that shape your language when you deliver your rhetoric” (Halevi). In other words, these rhetorical constraints determine the rhetoric, or “persuasive language,” and are used according to things such as the audience or the context. In Villarosa’s case, her white audience creates the constraints of her essay. One rhetorical constraint Villarosa uses is she does not directly mention white people as perpetrators of racist acts and ideologies. In Villarosa’s introduction of a white enslaver owner named Dr. Thomas Hamilton, who used his enslaved person, John Brown, for his abusive medical experiments, Villarosa writes:
Hamilton was a courtly Southern gentleman, a respected physician and a trustee of the Medical Academy of Georgia. And like many other doctors of the era in the South, he was also a wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people went beyond culture and were more than skin deep, insisting that black bodies were composed and functioned differently than white bodies.
Villarosa noticeably fails to mention that Hamilton was a white man, although the audience can assume he is from his status. This lack of a direct statement of his race is no coincidence. Villarosa is most likely aware that any clear mention of enslavers as being white would implicate white people in general, as being racist and abusive, no matter how unrelated they are to Hamilton or his ideologies. Villarosa has a strong understanding of her audience and their possible reactions to her main ideas—a key component in using rhetorical strategies. Halevi writes, “We adjust our language according to who our audience is as well as the nature of our relationship with them”. Because Villarosa intends to reach white audiences as part of her purpose, she “adjusts” the rhetoric of her essay by eliminating any overt mention of white people as racists despite the significant role white people played in black people’s slavery and current racial inequalities.
Villarosa uses the same rhetorical strategy throughout the essay, usually by simply mentioning the white person’s profession as an indicator they are white without saying so overtly. For example, Villarosa writes that J. Marion Sims used “misconceptions about pain tolerance…to use black women as subjects in experiments that would be unconscionable today, practicing painful operations (at a time before anesthesia was in use) on enslaved women in Montgomery, Ala., between 1845 and 1849.” Just like Dr. Hamilton, Villarosa only introduces Sims by describing his job and beliefs; as a “pro-slavery advocate… physician…father of modern gynecology”—not once mentioning that he is white. This is true for every other figure Villarosa mentions in her essay, whom she would describe by simply explaining their relation to the misconceptions about black people’s physiologies, whether that be by being a doctor, a physician, or someone who wrote medical “myths” about black people’s health (Villarosa).
In fact, the only time Villarosa ever mentions white people as perpetrators of racist ideologies/acts was with the mention of a scientific study: “A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.” Here, Villarosa directly implies that a lot of white doctors-to-be still hold notions about black people’s pain tolerance that are clearly false and rooted in racist myths. However, although Villarosa is directly calling the students out as being white, she presents it as a statistic from a study, as evidence that the implication that white people are racist is not directly coming from her, but rather from an academic survey.
Villarosa’s Rhetorical Strategy: Scientific Objectivity
Another rhetorical strategy that Villarosa uses to not alienate white audiences is through the lack of personal connection within her essay. Villarosa does this by not using any “I” within her essay. This might be understandable, considering that the genre of the essay is scientific writing. However, I believe that Villarosa is actually using the essay’s genre to create the “appearance of objectivity” to appear more credible to the white audience (Allen 94). Allen discusses this strategy in which, combined with the general assumption that scientific writing is an “unbiased vessel for transmitting truth”, scientific writers themselves use “rhetorical strategies that contribute to the appearance of objectivity.” Allen defines one rhetorical strategy scientific writers use, which is the lack of any active agents. He writes, “The editors of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage point out that while the active voice is generally preferable, ‘a few [usage] commentators find the passive useful in scientific writing (one even believes it to be necessary) because of the tone of detachment and impersonality that it helps establish’” (Allen 98).
Villarosa similarly creates a sense of “detachment” by not using any personal “I” and simply reporting scientific studies. In effect, this creates the appearance that 1) Villarosa’s essay is credible because it is entirely objective, and 2) Villarosa is not personally attacking a white audience that might get offended or feel guilty because of her essay. In the previous example, of the 2016 survey, Villarosa uses a strategy of impersonality and the appearance of objective reporting – allowing her to get away with mentioning white people because it is in accordance with the genre of scientific writing. Thus, even though the survey clearly implies that many white medical students still hold racist notions, white audiences are less likely to be offended or feel attacked because Villarosa masks it with scientific objectivity. As Dirk writes, “knowing what a genre is used for can help people to accomplish goals” (253). Villarosa uses her awareness of the genre of scientific writing, as well as her knowledge of the white audience, to successfully accomplish her purpose of informing white audiences about racial myths in healthcare without offending or alienating them.
Villarosa’s Rhetorical Strategy: The Collective “We”
Interestingly, at the very end of the essay, Villarosa suddenly changes rhetorical strategies, going from objective scientific writing to making an overt persuasive statement: “Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago, we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage and ill treatment.” What is interesting here is that despite the use of “we”, which directly opposes the expectations of objective scientific writing, Villarosa still tries to avoid offending white audiences. The first statement in the sentence clearly refers to the white doctors today and of the past: “Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability [referring to white medical students] because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago [referring to the white doctors of enslaved people and white enslavers]…” (Villarosa). The sentence is a direct call-out to the white medical students who still believe in racial myths about black people’s physiologies that were falsely established by white doctors and enslavers, all of which Villarosa has presented previously in the essay as evidence. And yet, the sentence does not seem like a call-out because Villarosa does not directly refer to white people anywhere in the sentence.
Moreover, the second half of the sentence, in which Villarosa uses the personal language: “we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage, and ill treatment” actually helps the entire sentence appear less directed at white people. Now, with the added language of “we”, the entire sentence reads as: “Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability [referring to the collective “we”] because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago [still referring to white doctors of enslaved people], we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage, and ill treatment” (Villarosa). In this new meaning of the sentence, Villarosa is calling out to all of us, regardless of race, to examine our own notions about black people’s health and to look deeper into how racial bias in healthcare came about and how it still lives on today. This effectively gets Villarosa’s message across, despite venturing from scientific objectivity, as white people are less likely to feel implicated and guilty, and thus more likely to believe in Villarosa’s final message.
Although writing for a target racial demographic in a context where people are still heavily racially divided is tricky, Villarosa effectively gets her message across through the use of multiple rhetorical strategies determined by the constraints her white audience creates. Villarosa uses her knowledge of the audience to determine what rhetoric is the most appropriate, the least offensive or alienating, and the most likely to get her message across. In this case, Villarosa avoids referring to white figures as being white when discussing them as people who held racist notions, effectively putting fewer implications on the white audience as a whole. Villarosa also uses genre awareness by becoming as impersonal as possible and mostly reporting scientific evidence, to appear more objective and thus more credible to the white audience. Finally, Villarosa’s message calls out to all of the audience, regardless of race or political alignment, as a way to create less of a targeted responsibility for white people. Villarosa’s strategy allows her to not only inform white audiences about intentional and unintentional racial notions they might have, but it also gets the message across to the white audience. As Halevi writes, “understanding the rhetorical constraints of a given situation can also give us a lot of power and opportunity for creativity to shape our language in pursuit of our purposes.” Villarosa shapes her rhetoric so that she does not end up alienating white people but her message is strong enough to imply that white people have a responsibility to challenge systemic racism. In this way, Villarosa ends up fulfilling her purpose without sacrificing her audience.
Quinn’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.
Allen, M. C. “The Rhetorical Situation of the Scientific Paper and the ‘Appearance’ of Objectivity.” Young Scholars in Writing, Vol. 2, Sept. 2015, pp. 94-102.
Dirk, Kerry. “Navigating Genres.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. E-book, Parlor Press, 2010, pp 249-262.
Halevi, Itai. “Rhetorical Situations: An Introduction.” Google Classroom, University of Massachusetts Boston. Accessed 16 September 2021.
Silverstein, Jake. “Editor’s Note.” 1619 Project, a special issue of New York Times Magazine, 18 Aug 2019, pp. 4-5.
Villarosa, Linda. “How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today.”1619 Project, a special issue of New York Times Magazine, 18 Aug 2019, pp. 56-57.
“The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine, 18 Aug 2019.