white supremacy and yeast infection
Yeah, I know. White supremacy and yeast infection. Oh the scratching itching-ness of it all, the irritating spreading, the relentless fungal expansion. A system-wide yeast infection is not a small thing. It causes great harm to the whole body, weakening it and cutting it off from other aspects of life. It destabilizes the immune system, which then destabilizes the entire organism.
I’ve been circling around this analogy for five years now. An itch, if you will forgive me, that I haven’t been able to scratch. I give up on it and then, in the middle of a conversation or a moment of staring at the sky, the analogy comes back. Out of the blue. So I am going to write this through, as a way of thinking about white supremacy on a track that runs right to its side, in the hopes that the thinking will help me more deeply feel/sense as well as understand and remember white supremacy’s strategies of control.
Yeast infection is an overwhelm of candida in the body. Candida produces something called chitin. Chitin is found in the cell walls of fungi, the shells of crabs and other shellfish, in bird’s beaks and in the scales of fish. It literally means a covering and that’s what it is: it’s a protection that does not break down in water. It’s see-through. It’s resilient; meaning it can shift and change in response to stress without breaking. And it’s very tough. In butterfly wings, chitin can change so that the coloring on the butterfly wings changes. Chitin is also what paper wasps use when they make their nests; it’s what helps those “paper” nests be strong and sturdy and not dissolve in the rain.
Chitin is not naturally found in human bodies. Somewhere back along the evolutionary tree, chitin production went to the fish and birds and wasps and amphibians and as mammals we traded a literal tough and sturdy shell for the hormone and nervous system response that makes up our survival patterns. No exoskeleton for us!
The cell wall of fungi, and Candida (or yeast) is a fungi, is composed of chitin. When a fungus enters our bodies, our immune system pops right up and starts fighting to get rid of it. The human response recognizes chitin and knows what to do with it; we’ve been living alongside each other for a lot of generations. As long as the immune system is not compromised and as long as the fungus occurs in small enough amounts, we pass it out of our bodies. We get rid of chitin all of the time. It can look like an allergic reaction, a feeling of being tired and sneezy, feeling mild aches and pains, having sudden diarrhea or gas. When there is too much of the stuff or we are too vulnerable, then the yeast infection becomes systemic. And systemic can mean many things, it can mean significant pain, an inability to digest, it can mean the yeast starts growing on the outside as well as the inside. Literally, our bodies are overwhelmed. All of you beloveds who cared for people living with HIV during the 1980s and 90s, you remember how many had these systemic infections. All of you beloveds who are currently struggling with this in your bodies, I see you.
When a yeast infection becomes systemic, the fungus takes residence throughout our bodies, establishing itself in the cellular walls of organs and soft tissue, competing for nutrition and releasing toxins into our blood streams as it releases waste. Like a parasite, it establishes itself fully, using our body’s systems to do its work. Once established, it is hard to get rid of. The fungus is protected by its chitin; by a biofilm that selectively lets information come in and go out. This biofilm is what our immune system attacks unless and until the immune system is overwhelmed. Like the wasps’ paper nest and the lobster’s shell, the biofilm surrounding the yeast protects it from anything outside that might harm it. The fungus doesn’t particularly care that it is causing harm to the body it lives within. It is only interested in its survival and it naturally and instinctively protects itself from the immune forces that would destroy it. As humans living in an industrialized world, most of us are living with some form of candida. Few of us know it until the candida reaches such an extreme that it makes us visibly deeply unwell.
There are many beloveds who are living with this so I want to be clear, that while I am talking about yeast infection as an analogy, it is also a very real thing that impacts the lives of many around us. And still, I want to talk about it as a visual for understanding how white supremacy, or any other multigenerational and childhood-conditioned form of supremacy, works. We are all connected (and thank you, Adrienne Maree Brown, for how you breathed life into thinking about fractals and change). Patterns resonate with each other, from the largest to the smallest. In this piece, I am talking about the individual body and the collective body. I am talking about both internalized experiences and conditioning into dominance patterns.
It’s the chitin that’s the issue. Chitin is basically made of glucose and nitrogen, two things found within our bodies. Chitin is chitin because of the molecular composition of these things and the alignment of their component parts.
White supremacy itself is made up of naturally occurring substances: the experience of being raised by a parent who was raised by parents before, the fact that generations exist, the amount of melanin produced by the skin, what is taught about the meaning of melanin (your own and others), the need to protect that which feels vulnerable, the desire to accumulate resources to ensure that your kin are safe, experiences of vulnerability, experiences of shame, how a body learns or doesn’t learn to experience uncomfortable sensations and feelings, the fact of evolutionary survival responses including dissociation, the desire for kin to protect other kin, the evolution of structures that rise out of that desire for protection, the frontal cortex of the brain and its ability to strategize, reframe and create abstract thinking that can exist because it makes sense, and the normalization of generational experiences into culture. There are other things, too. The fact of the complex histories of the tribes of western europe that turned into the nations of western europe and the histories of anti-semitism, class, gender violence, islamophobia and other patterns that were brought to the americas in the pockets of settlers. The problem is with the molecular composition of these things and the alignment of their component parts. White supremacy acts like chitin, it’s a thin membrane that surrounds a life, shaping and interpreting what comes through the membrane.
In small amounts, the body overcomes it easily. It’s why young children, unless heavily conditioned by community, tend to both love and be gently curious about those who are different. It’s why young children usually choose sharing over fighting for resources. The problem is when the chitin overwhelms. Like candida, white supremacy is wiley and smart. It weakens and harms the bodies of those it attacks. All bodies living within it are impacted, some more completely than others. Some are overwhelmed and white supremacy becomes systemic. No one growing up surrounded by white supremacy is completely protected. It’s not possible.
White supremacy impacts all bodies who live within it. White supremacy impacts all of us as people with bodies. It shows up as white supremacy culture. It uses strategies of surveillance to determine who is trustworthy and who is dangerous, from how white supremacy extremism is dealt with to a racialized weaving of fear and control so thorough that it can feel as American as apple pie (which it is). It is downloaded, in different and dangerous ways, as part of the process of being raced within the US.
The way you treat or prevent a yeast infection is that you support or build up the immune system which means shifting the environment that is impacting the body. This means cutting the things that feed the fungus, that support the production of chitin: cutting sugar and alcohol and complex carbohydrates. It also means getting rest and care. No individual can completely protect themselves because we are the environments and the communities we live within. We are not free until we are all free. Period.
There are various pharmaceuticals that have been developed to destroy candida and some of them work sometimes on some bodies. And some of them don’t work on many bodies and sometimes they eradicate candida only to then, not long after, watch as it creeps back in. Each of these things depend on cutting out those things that feed the fungus: sugars, carbs, and other high energy foods.
What are the signs that candida is leaving your body? Your thinking might feel foggy and dull, you might have a headache, feel exhausted, dizzy, have bloating or gas or constipation, lots of sweating and/or fever, skin break-outs and general flu-like symptoms. In other words, the very process of healing from this infection is also a strain on the body. When the body starts to feel achy tired, to feel unwell, it will create strong cravings: eat sugar! Drink alcohol! Our bodies are not thinking strategically for the long term, but are responding to what is happening in the present moment. Something hurts? Let’s make it stop hurting now. We need our will, our desires, our thoughtfulness to remember that these aches and pains, this sense of disorientation, is temporary and we will survive past it. With an overwhelm of candida, we can’t trust our own immune systems to know what’s best, not only for our survival, but also for our strength and glory.
Chitin is a protective shell that surrounds the fungus, letting in what is needed to support fungi survival and keeping out anything that would danger its life. Yeast does not care that it is harming its host as it continues to poison its shared environment, selectively letting some things come inside where it’s vulnerable and meanwhile, excreting a range of toxins that makes its host body even more vulnerable to other infections.
As I was writing this post, an article floated across my inbox. “A mysterious infection, spanning the globe in a climate of secrecy,” tells of a form of candida that is showing up in hospitals all over the world. It is drug-resistant and its resistance has built from both human overuse of antibiotics and antifungals as well as the widespread agricultural use of fungicides. Hospitals are cautious about naming the extent of candida auris. We are the environments we live within and the chemicals used to produce our food.
White supremacy is experiencing a global resurgence, both in its extreme version, and as a strategy that supports global capitalism with its linking of US anglo-cultural norms (individualism, private ownership, wealth accumulation) with the white bodies who sell it and who represent its success. This, in turn, continues forward the white supremacist/capitalist strategy of anti-Blackness and indigenous disappearance to open up further natural resources for extraction.
With an overwhelm of candida, we can not trust our own immune systems to help us overcome it. We need help. Our immune systems need to be strengthened. Our environments need to change. White supremacy and yeast infection.
(This is dedicated to Lex Horan who, when I shared this analogy, went wow in a particular way that made me want to write more about it.)
* It is always hard to use a disease as an analogy. Unfortunately, ableist beliefs turn diseases into “bad” things and people living with chronic disease as in need of “cure.” Chronic disease is a kind of information; it’s information about what is happening to someone and it is only one part of what is happening to them. Every life force is more complex than the chronic disease they live with. That is also true of white supremacy culture and all who are impacted. And, at the same time, chronic disease exists and the various forms are part of a larger ecosystem. Those impacted experience the effect and those who love them and/or are close to them also experience the effect.
The reflections on candida above are a mix of standard western science reflections on the life of the fungus combined with learned wisdom from somatic practitioners. There is not currently USDA approved techniques of combating candida other than through drug therapy. This is not a blog post about medical research and the pharmaceutical industry, although it could be.