Racism, Health and Creating Stronger Communities - Part 1

A headshot of Dr. Marissa Coleman

Part 1 of a two-part series

(Part 2: Racism, Health and Creating Stronger Communities)

Marissa Coleman, PsyD, is a staff psychologist at the UVM Medical Center and Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). She also is a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee at UVM Medical Center and presents trainings on trauma-informed care, cultural humility and racial equity internationally.

Here, she shares her insights on racial inequity, white privilege and having uncomfortable conversations.

Can you make the connection between racism and public health?

Racism and racial injustice is a public health issue. Black, Indigenous and/or People of Color (BIPOC) have experienced the effects of systemic racism, structural oppression and white supremacy for centuries. The oppressive nature of these structures undermine our collective ability to secure quality education, leadership positions, housing, health care and equal treatment in the criminal justice system. We have experienced it, and many of us have carried it in our bodies in the form of chronic stress. Chronic stress within BIPOC individuals may manifest in many ways, some of which include: high blood pressure, heart disease and manifestations of trauma.

At this moment, the soul of our nation, and even the world, is split wide open, and the insidious nature of racism is exposed. We need to apply the same sense of urgency to how we've addressed the public health issue of COVID-19 to healing racial injustice and white supremacy in this nation.

We've been hearing a lot about the need to start having uncomfortable conversations about race. What does that mean?

I don't often hear that a person of color is uncomfortable with having a conversation about race, because we are socialized from birth to think of ourselves in the context of race and racial dynamics. That is something that's organically woven into conversations within our families and communities. I think whenever we talk about people, we need to be specific about which people we're talking about. When I hear that people are uncomfortable with having conversations about race, what I believe we mean is that some white people are uncomfortable.

Why is race an uncomfortable subject for white people?

There are some really wonderful books that explain why that is, one of which is Robin DiAngelo's book, “White Fragility.” As she points out, white people are socialized to not think of themselves as racial beings. Specifically, a white person is often what we think of automatically when we talk about a human being. I see this frequently in the medical field when we're doing case presentations. For example, we may say, “female identified person, mid-twenties with this presenting issue.” If it's a person of color, we say, “African American female identified person, mid-twenties.” Race is only an identifier

when it pertains to people of color. That frames BIPOC people as a racialized version of a human being. When we think about the internalization of those messages within a white community, of course, there's going to be discomfort in talking about something that you've actually been trained to not think or talk about.

White people sometimes say they don't see color as a way to indicate they aren't racist. Why is the concept of colorblindness counterproductive?

Colorblindness robs everybody involved from seeing each other fully and clearly. For white people, the goal should be to see all of the strengths, resilience, beauty and pain that BIPOC individuals embody. Rationally speaking, how can one build an authentic connection with another if you only see certain parts of the person? I also think it's important to critically ask yourself, “Who did the colorblindness movement benefit?” I would say it served to maintain structural oppression and silence difficult dialogue about race and racism.   

What does it mean to be anti-racist?

As Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, notes in his book “How to Be an Antiracist,” it's not enough to simply be “not racist.” “The opposite of ‘racist' isn't ‘not racist,'” he writes. “It is ‘antiracist.'” The anti-racist movement dates back to the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. An important point within anti-racist work is to understand that it is not the responsibility of people of color to fix racism, or explain to white people how not to be racist. Being anti-racist is a verb not a noun. To be anti-racist means that when you see or hear racism within your family, your school and other community places, you speak out against it, even when it's uncomfortable. You are actively anti-racist. In doing that, you are recognizing and prioritizing an anti-racist agenda over your own feelings of comfort.

Should we seek out activities where we can experience diversity?

Absolutely. I would say that BIPOC parents think about that daily. We think about where we can find diversity in our schools, neighborhoods and in health care settings -- that is something constantly on our minds. It is really important, again, for white parents to also be thinking about this. It's one thing to read a book and to tell your child we're all equal, but what happens when a child looks at all of the family's friends, all of the birthday parties, the gatherings, the celebrations, and there are no people of color there? Our behavior as parents sends a really loud message and often it's louder than our words.

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