Archive for May, 2015

Undoing Racism

Last week, the Tulane MCHLT hosted an “Undoing Racism” workshop for students, staff, faculty, and MCH partners, in an effort to better understand and address a key determinant of health.

By Liz Hasseld, BA

It’s been about a week since I attended a three-day workshop titled Undoing Racism, presented by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. That title packs a punch – I know! I learned galaxies in those three days and I am excited to apply my new knowledge and perspective as I move forward in public health. I feel very lucky to have participated in this workshop at the start of my career in Maternal and Child Health.

Being a reflexive learner was vital to this type of education. The workshop was three days long, we were in the same room, and barely moved from our chairs. But I was never bored. The hours went by quickly even though I was mostly listening. I think the time passed so quickly for me because we were talking about race, something that is taboo or impolite or often shifted to other issues in conversation with friends or discussion in class. It is rarely discussed as a stand-alone topic in mainstream settings. The first day the presenters (organizers) discussed some ground rules with the group. One rule was to focus on race in United States, and to not bring up classism or sexism. At first I was a little reluctant about that rule – isn’t intersectionality what it’s all about these days? But after the three days I understood why that rule was vital. Without it, the issue of race would become hidden behind other issues and other words. It is usually the last thing to be discussed – it never gets the time or attention it deserves. We were taught the historical beginnings of race and about the laws and policies that have built up the system we have today, with Blacks as second class citizens. We examined the widespread social policies starting from the founding of the United States that benefited White Americans (“White Affirmative Action”) like the Homestead Act, The New Deal and The GI Bill, leaving Black Americans out directly and indirectly. White Americans have had a much longer time and much more government backing to build up wealth and assets that are evident today.

The title to the workshop gave me false hope of unveiling all the answers to cure our country and ourselves of systemic racism. What I gained was far more powerful. The best way I can describe my experience – which was truly life changing – is that it lifted blinders off my eyes that I’d had on since I was born. Ideas of privilege and systemic racism were not new concepts to me (I, a White female, went to a liberal arts school after all!). I was aware of the facts and figures, individual stories of struggle, unfair media portrayals of people of color, and health disparities that exists in this country but I have never put all the pieces together into a philosophy that unites people. Beyond creating programs and engaging in superficial community engagement, public health professionals need to be involved within their own community to break down a system of oppression – meaning that, I, as a public health professional, can’t leave the office for the day and expect my program to change the current system. It will take honest communication and my favorite, community organizing. There is no clear path or way to “undo racism” but it must start from inside my own community – not from an ivory tower or a board room in a skyscraper. This may seem obvious but it was a really good reminder to me as higher education tends to slowly morph people into type A technocrats whether we like it or not!

Although public health is full of compassionate people who want to help others we must try to see a bigger picture. We have professionalized traditional duties of the community to give ourselves jobs. Although we mean well, this practice takes power away from the communities we are meant to help. So we should cut all social programs and let everyone fend for themselves? No. This idea can be dangerously mistaken for a neoconservative view that individuals should be left to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, free of big government. That is absolutely not what I am advocating for. The point is that there is no pre-subscribed and clean data-driven answer. The answers will only come from honest dialogue, courage to ask difficult questions, and an awareness of our own place in this racist system.  Perhaps the workshop left me with more questions than answers. These questions might take a career or a lifetime to answer. These questions are uncomfortable. They raise into question my country, my identity, and my history. The solution to these difficult questions is to keep asking and talking – not to shut down with grief or rejection. So I look ahead with hope and humility. I am going to try my best to remember everything from those three days.

Liz Hasseld, an MCHLT Scholar, will be graduating in Summer 2015 with an MPH concentrating in Maternal and Child Health. Her interests include migrant and refugee health, reproductive health, and achieving health equity through policy. As an ESFJ, she loves to travel and meet new people and is slowly teaching herself Spanish.


May 21, 2015 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

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