I remember the first time I became consciously aware of my whiteness and the lack of racial diversity I experienced growing up. It wasn’t when I first moved to Atlanta, but actually much later when I flew home to Colorado. It was a late-night flight when I stepped off the plane at DIA and started walking to the train. I looked around at all my fellow travelers, the employees closing up airport stalls and other staff thinking, “Gosh, where are all the Black people?”.
I remember the first time I became aware of institutionalized racism in the United States. I was 26 years old and it was called “Redlining”. A practice that allowed banks to deny mortgage and loan applications for credit worthy Black people in specific neighborhoods. Notably, this was backed by the US Government.
My astonishment at the fact that this was a legitimate practice lead me to dig deeper which lead me to the book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. An extremely well-researched telling of the disproportionate incarceration of Black men in the United States. Effectively, stripping these men of their individual rights to vote, own homes, raise families and participate as equals in this society, compared to the White men committing the exact same crimes and getting away with them.
Excuse me, what?
Next, I began to learn how racism impacts health. Not in the direct way that you might think because Black people don’t experience unique diseases. We all have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, substance use disorder…the list goes on. What Black people do experience is worse outcomes. Why is that the case?
Well there’s distrust of the health care system (Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Henrietta Lacks), lack of Black physicians caring for Black patients, the effects of generational stress and hardship, redlining that dictates you only have access to housing in certain neighborhoods that don’t have access to safe parks, healthy groceries, good air quality, reliable transportation.
Health is not simply the absence of disease.
In May when Amaud Arbery was shot while out on a run in his neighborhood, I too went for a run. Then I thought about how meaningless of a gesture that felt as the hardest part for me was summoning the motivation to get out the door. I never once feared for my life as I jogged down the sidewalk.
In June when the officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck as he whispered, “I can’t breathe” I saw the surge of social media posts declaring silence as an act of racism. But, I struggled to find the words to say. I remember wondering if I should speak out, share posts, exert my opinion on a topic that I am in no position of expertise to discuss. I felt paralyzed by the conflict between my desire to listen and learn and the cry to act and demand justice.
Of note – it doesn’t escape me the irony of those words. I struggled to speak from the safety of my home while black lives are lost while literally struggling to breathe. This is my privilege.
This feels like too little, too late, as I’ve sat on these words for too long. We will always feel overwhelmed when it comes to starting something that challenges us. Simply think back to your messy childhood bedroom when it came time to pick things up. Okay, I’ll think back to mine… It was daunting and I didn’t ever know where to start. But I did start, and eventually order was returned. I think the same goes for here, even though it won’t be easy to take that first step. Perhaps though, after the first step, the next few will be easier. So, it’s time I spoke out. It’s time to get uncomfortable. To have the difficult conversations.
I’m asking you to come alongside. To hold me accountable. To allow me to hold you accountable. We can’t do this alone.
Sources for fact-checking and further reading:
- Owens, D.C., Fett, S.M. Black Maternal and Infant Health: Historical Legacies of Slavery. American Journal of Public Health. 2019.
- Pachecho, C.M., et al. Moving Forward: Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust Between American Indians and Researchers. American Journal of Public Health. 2013.
- Rodriguez, M.A., Garcia, R. First, Do No Harm: The US Sexually Transmitted Disease Experiments in Guatemala. American Journal of Public Health. 2013.
- Brandt, A.M. Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report 8(6): 21-29.