Racism, Health and Creating Stronger Communities - Part 2

A headshot of Dr. Marissa Coleman

Part 2 of a two-part series

(Part 1: Racism, Health and Creating Stronger Communities)

Marissa Coleman, PsyD, is a staff psychologist at the UVM Medical Center. She also is a member of the Equity, Diversity 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.

When is it time to start talking to children about anti-racism?

I feel it is important to note that the conversations within Black, Indigenous and/or People of Color (BIPOC) families and communities are different than the conversations that need to happen within white spaces. Research shows that as early as 30 months, most children use race to choose playmates. Ideally, discussions about differences should be organically woven into every child's life from the very beginning. Notably, the work starts with all of us personally. If we aren't comfortable thinking and discussing our own racial socialization then we likely won't be able to hold these conversations effectively with children in our lives. 

How does white fragility undermine constructive conversations about race?

A critical conversation about race does call for a recognition of the power and privilege that's inherent in a white identity. If a white person is having a conversation with a BIPOC person, it's important to recognize that the default way of being in that dynamic may be to assert power and privilege even when that is not a white person's intention. What that can look like is interrupting, over explaining yourself, crying or getting emotional – all of these reactions are rooted in “white fragility.” The function of white fragility is to turn the attention of the conversation away from the felt experience of the BIPOC person onto the emotional response and experience of the white person

What are some ways to recognize white privilege and improve dialogue about race with (BIPOC) individuals and communities?

It is important for me to name that acknowledging and dismantling white privilege in conversations takes consistent effort and engagement in personal learning. Notably, when a white person enters a conversation about race and racial injustice and chooses to sit with their emotional discomfort, dedicate their energy to listen, and acknowledges the lived experiences of the human they are speaking with, real change can happen. The power imbalance can equalize in those moments and authentic connection occurs. It's really a beautiful experience.

How can white people become allies for people of color?

In regards to racial healing and advocacy, my answer is for white people to talk less, listen more, and learn when to move out of the way so BIPOC communities can create our own safe spaces.

I practice psychology from a Liberation Psychology framework, which asserts that true liberation has to come from within the community of the oppressed. With that said, I encourage white people to utilize their power and privilege to amplify BIPOC voices because many of us are here and fighting for a more equitable experience but may not be invited to the decision-making tables. I appreciate this question because I believe that there are many white allies within our communities who are asking themselves the same thing. I often share during my trainings with white allies that it is OK to feel uncomfortable and admit that you do not know the “right” way to say something. The focus in equity work isn't to learn all of the right answers but instead to increase your cultural humility. I also recognize that what I may need to feel safe is unique to my background, and the BIPOC community is expansive with diverse thoughts and needs.

Are you hopeful that this time we might see real change going forward?

I am hopeful because BIPOC people are resilient and we do not give up. I am encouraged by the conversations I am witnessing and engaging in. I find comfort in my faith and the strength of my ancestors who survived and persevered. When it comes down to it, my hope is that this is not just a moment, but a movement, and that people are being changed from the inside out.

 Stay Informed

Sign up to receive the latest stories, information and guidance from our experts on a wide variety of health topics.