The importance of anti-racism training

November 17, 2016 at 3:38 pm Leave a comment

Many of the CEMCH Scholars attended this year’s meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA), held in Denver, October 29 – November 2. We will be posting their reflections and highlights this month.

By Gabriella Landgraf-Neuhaus, BSPH

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APHA President Dr. Camara Jones speaks at the opening session

Before APHA, I was not really sure what to expect. I was apprehensive. However, after the opening session on Sunday, I felt much more at home. The outgoing APHA President, Camara Jones, MD, MPH, was one of the noteworthy speakers, and used her time to address and stress the importance of addressing racism in everything we do. She used many analogies that I found helpful, like that there are signs in society, as in a restaurant, that say “Open/Closed” but that are only open or closed to certain people, reflecting how racist our societal structures are. People inside the restaurant only see this open sign, and people outside the restaurant only see the closed sign. So it is up to, in large part, the people inside the restaurant, who have the opportunity to eat, to use their privilege to help those outside the restaurant get in, so that they may thrive as well. This illustrated her point that “naming racism equips you to act,” in other words, seeing and identifying this privilege can move a person towards making change.

I loved how she further illustrated the importance of addressing racism and health equity by naming three core barriers to achieving an anti-racist society. The first core barrier is that we are a-historical, meaning we are disconnected from our history. We are disconnected from the knowledge that we have already gained from past events that shaped this country, and from the implications and potential power that this knowledge has when it comes to helping us change the present and future of the United States. The second core barrier is that we as a country have a narrow focus on individual efficacy, and that we need more of a focus on collective efficacy in making change. We must recognize the immense power we have as citizens of the United States to work together to fix what we are not happy with in our society. The third core barrier she addresses is the myth of meritocracy, that the United States tells its citizens that if you work hard enough anything is possible. However, this idea does not recognize that everything is not equitable in this country and that without equity, there will always be people who work very hard, but who are still poor and without their essential needs.

This third core barrier hit me the hardest; while I had thought about these three issues separately, Dr. Camara Jones connected them beautifully in a way that was very easy to absorb. The third core barrier, in my interpretation, addresses privilege very directly. It shows us how there are those set up for certain advantages and that a United States meritocracy is a lie. This myth of meritocracy in many ways placates those in the upper classes, and prevents them from seeing their privilege, while also placating those in the lower classes into thinking that if they work hard and try their best they will be able to move up in the class structure of the United States. At the same time, this stratification distances the upper, lower, and middle classes from one another, making empathy between and within these classes difficult. I think that empathy between and within classes for our individual and collective struggles is difficult in part because we have placed so much responsibility on the individual self, when it should be on the collective society that maintains these structurally racist, sexist, and otherwise discriminatory practices. While we make up this society, we must all be responsible for our own awakenings, our own naming of racism, in order to start to change the collective society. We must share our knowledge and help each other to awaken to the reality of racism, as a collective.

Meritocracy does not take into account structural racism. It does not acknowledge that there are those with privilege and those without who must find ways to break through the heavy burden of racism to find success. Dr. Camara Jones has called for collective action to address this, and for an anti-racism treaty at the federal level. She has also called for us to come together as public health professionals to begin to organize and strategize for a nation-wide campaign against racism. Too many institutions have not addressed their racism, and this is in part because we as a society are still colorblind, blind to the many ways in which racism is present every day, in ways large and small. But as public health professionals, we have the data to support this campaign. We know that race and more poignantly, structural racism, is a main, if not THE main cause of health disparities. The first step at our institutional level, such as at Tulane University, is to acknowledge this and move to make anti-racist trainings available, and hopefully required, for everyone.

After the opening session, Dr. Jones held an anti-racism roundtable collaboration. It was packed! After addressing us, Dr. Jones asked us to split up into eight teams: communication and dissemination, education and development, global matters, liaison and partnership, organizational excellence, policy and legislation, science and publications, and history. We then brainstormed in these different sections what should be addressed by APHA in this national campaign against racism. I took part in the communication and dissemination team, which worked on how to name racism: “How do we get people to see racism as a core problem that our society must face and work to undo?”

We have to find ways of putting racism in terms that all people can understand, to play to citizens’ empathy; to turn our collective blame and inaction into responsibility and action; and build bridges over petty disagreements and value differences. In other words, we must find common ground, and anti-racism training is a place to start.

Gabriella Landgraf-Neuhaus is a first-year MPH student, with a concentration in Maternal and Child Health. She received a Bachelor’s Degree from Tulane University in Public Health and Anthropology. Her interests include equity in education at all levels, maternal, child, and family relationships and wellness, integration of the natural world into education, and anti-racism training.

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