White People… What Say You?

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White friends, colleagues, peers, and neighbors –

White people who played with me as a child and sent well-wishes to my parents –

White people who invited me to your homes and welcomed me at your tables –

White people who were friends with my sister and had drinks with my Dad –

White people who prayed beside my Grandmother and worked beside my Mom –

White people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump –

White people who made room on public transit and held open elevator doors –

White people I know and white people I don’t –

White people who have power and white people who won’t –

White people in general –

What. Say. You.

What say you?

As the President of the United States wages verbal and political violence in your name, what say you?

As he reorders our democracy to enshrine white nationalist power, what say you?

As he retells a story of America that places you, and you alone, in positions of moral and political authority, what say you?

And what are you doing?

Are you silent and on the sidelines, unscathed by the vitriol because you are unsupportive of its arbiter?

Do you grapple with this violence, both rhetorical and physical, meted for your racial advancement or is your struggle brief?

How does it feel to be white in the midst of a white supremacist insurgence in America?

Do you hope to passively benefit from language that resurrects a nation where only white people belong or hold political power?

How are you making sense of the ways hateful, racist words make it fundamentally easier for people who look like you to move in this country and feel free?

Are you comfortable in spaces at home, in community, at work, school, and church where only people who look like you can be safe and thrive?

What do you see as your responsibility, right now, in this very moment, as the President of the United States articulates and executes a political agenda that limits the rights and protections of all kinds of people, simply because they are not you?

And what do you say to other white people, especially those who will never ascend to the  power or wealth that Trump’s whiteness promises? What do you say to those whom whiteness is failing?

White people, what, if anything, in these dire political times, do you feel compelled to say or do?

I ask these questions honestly and earnestly and with a bit of impatience. I ask them with the full intent that at least some white people will respond.

If you would like to respond publicly, I invite you to my twitter thread in which some white folks have already spoken. Or if you feel so inclined, sound off in these comments below.

And if you know me in real life, I invite you to call me. Text me. Email me.

Say. Something.

Whether I see you in clinic, in the grocery store, or in my gym, I need to know where you stand.

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Where Implicit Bias Fails

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The implicit bias frame does not offer equity. It offers absolution from complicity in systems that harm people. And yet, individuals, organizations, and institutions continue to use the implicit bias frame to make sense of inequity and to address it.

Take police violence, for example. In the face of the devastating and disproportionate toll police violence takes on Black and Brown people in America, policymakers have responded by offering local law enforcement implicit bias training. The underlying assumption is, police violence is an interpersonal problem that takes place between an individual “bad” officer with bias and the civilian on whom their bias is projected. In this framing, the solution then requires an interpersonal remedy to address unconscious racial stereotypes that must drive racial inequity in police violence.

But this limited reading of the problem and solution, rooted in individualized and unconscious judgement, ignores the collective impact of police violence and the explicit choices that structure, authorize and weaponize police-community relations.

Police violence is also, and I would argue, largely, a structural problem, whose effects extend beyond individual civilians to the communities and populations who directly and indirectly suffer the burden of the disproportionate risk of this form of violence. This community and population-level impact is driven by intentional human design.

Police violence must be understood as the predictable by-product of policies that introduce militarized weapons into local precincts and permit use of force in the absence of a lethal threat. Racial inequity in police violence is then incentivized by “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance” politics that penalize poverty and Blackness. This inequity is exacerbated by municipal procedure to use petty offenses to generate city revenue. And it is perpetuated by law enforcement culture that fails to demand officer accountability.

Each of the preceding system-level factors are determined by explicit human choices, not implicit beliefs. Therefore, attending a training on implicit bias or simply substituting a Black or Brown officer for a white one, because they presumably harbor less anti-Black bias, does not address the systems-level choices at the core of police violence or the racial inequities those choices create.

Similarly in medicine, implicit bias training will not help institutions unpack their problematic relationship to entrenched local poverty and racial inequity – both drivers of racial health disparities. Those relationships, between hospitals, poverty and racial inequity, are structured by intentional business models and tax designations, not unconscious preferences or prejudices. And diversifying the physician workforce without disrupting the various manifestations of white hegemony that currently set clinical priorities, research agendas, and promotional criteria, will not magically narrow racial disparities in health outcomes.

One cannot simply change a cog in an assembly line and expect the line to produce a new product. Systems function as they are designed to. To get a new outcome, it requires building a new system or transforming the existing one – each of which relies on humans making different explicit choices, regardless of their implicit leanings.

Advocates, we can no longer afford to use an individual or interpersonal analysis of harm, like that offered by the implicit bias frame, to understand and confront inequity. It fails to capture the collective experience of harm and works to conceal the ways explicit choices encoded in process, reproduce harm, across systems and populations.

While the implicit bias frame may have gained traction because the solutions it offers are relatively simple, like admitting unknowing harm in one on one interactions. The frame ultimately fails where it absolves us from confronting our knowing role in maintaining systems that inequitably distribute harm among populations. That task is more complex and requires us to challenge our individual, organizational, and institutional choices to create and uphold legacies of oppression and privilege. We all must be accountable – to each other and to ourselves, for the systems we create, the systems we protect, and the systems we participate in that harm others. Because ultimately, the goal is not to simply adjust the ratio of good to bad apples, but to change the kinds of trees we are planting.

 

Charlottesville

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The torch-bearing, violence-streaked march of white nationalists through Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday, is terrifying. Present tense. Thanks HBO, but turns out we don’t need a fictionalized, revisionist look at the confederacy to imagine an America where Robert E. Lee is a hero, worthy of defense by militias and crowds shouting “blood and soil.” We get it already. It is the America we live in.

But in the wake of yet another iteration of emboldened racism, given platform and legitimacy by the president and his administration, it is important to be clear about the terms and legacy of this public debate.

White supremacy in America isn’t simply a set of informal ideas rooted in the racial superiority of people who call themselves white.

White supremacy is an institutionalized set of ideas founded on the racial superiority of people who call themselves white.

It’s not dangerous because some white people think they are better.

It is dangerous because it re-constitutes and maintains a tangible racial order where white people can become passive beneficiaries of public systems, public goods, public sympathy, and public protection, in ways black and brown people cannot. It is dangerous because this extreme perversion of “the public” excludes black and brown people. And the consequence is deadly.

So while yesterday’s staunch defense of the confederate flag and nostalgia for slavery may appear dated and unfamiliar, the political agenda underlying the protest is not.

In the last month, the Department of Justice, under the leadership of longtime civil rights opponent Jeff Sessions, resurrected white affirmative action to counter “race-based discrimination” in higher education that is costing supposedly deserving white students their so-called rightful place in our nation’s colleges and universities. The Republican-led House and then Senate each questioned and attempted to dismantle the merits of the Affordable Care Act, the only comprehensive national healthcare legislation to narrow deadly insurance and care gaps for black and Latinx patients. And just this past June, the president and Justice Department worked in tandem to request and secure voter data from states, an unprecedented move that has met bipartisan condemnation, and as the former head of the Civil Rights Division noted, is a prelude to voter purges that will disproportionately suppress voters of color.

So while a frequent response to yesterday, and the larger, more violent rally that took place today, is to support local organizations who condemn bigotry and hatred, such charity alone ignores the larger political agenda at stake. What is happening in Charlottesville is emblematic of what is happening to our democracy at large.

This fight is about who deserves the benefits of a shared America.

The answer to that question does not lie in outraged tweets. It lies in organized and sustained resistance to the resurgence of white supremacy that continues to threaten the lives, livelihoods, education, electoral participation, health and survival of people of color. There are only two sides of this and one is wrong.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk To Our Kids About Racism

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During the 2016 election, Americans opened a public discourse that sparked new and old fears, evoked unsettling and painful emotions, and surfaced certain real and perceived divides. When elections center solutions in the background to highlight problems in the foreground, it can be distracting and confusing, for adults and kids alike. Post-election, often those intensities fade. But this time, parents may find themselves confronting sustained and sometimes increasing worry, in the emotions and experiences of their children and their children’s classmates. These are the times when parents consider how they will explore complex and potentially charged topics with their children and teens.

As parents examine their values and their hopes for their children in this post-election climate, it may be helpful to consider how to approach a topic that is as oft-used as it is misunderstood – racism.

What are we talking about when we talk to our children about racism?

And how do parents start the conversation? 

When we talk to kids about racism, we are primarily talking about 3 things.

First, we are talking about history – things that happened in the past that are important to understand what is happening now and why it matters.

To illustrate the history of racism in America, some parents may find it helpful to review age-appropriate details. For example, teenagers may have knowledge of historical events like slavery and the civil rights movement. Starting with what they know, consider extending the conversation to other demonstrations of institutional racism like government-sanctioned red-lining practices that decreased the home values of people of color, particularly African Americans, and contributed to current racial wealth disparities in America. Or examine the implications of Japanese internment camps during WWII that used race and nationality to deny Japanese Americans their civil liberties. These events and the history they represent are the embers of old fires still kindling in our present and the more we understand them, the more we are equipped to recognize their reemergence.

Second, we are talking about feelings – the prejudiced assumptions and ideas about others based on race. When stated aloud, as a part of targeted comments or unintentionally as a part of repeated narratives, prejudiced feelings can result in trauma, stress, and anxiety for the people who become the butt of a hurtful joke or the demeaned character in a story. These types of one-on-one interactions highlight episodes of personally-mediated racism.

To help kids identify prejudice and its form of racism, parents may use children’s books to share helpful lessons. Some can be found here and here.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we are talking about actions – everyday choices, big and small, to treat people differently because of their race. This is called discrimination and it is powerful because it not only hurts people’s feelings, it can also make them sick.

Simply put, racism – like many of the “isms” that have been heightened by this recent election – is about exclusion and harms. That exclusion can happen at the lunch table just as much as it can happen through laws. And the resultant harms can range from emotions like embarrassment, humiliation, and shame to physical violence, psychological stress, poverty, and disease.

As kids come home crying or with troubling stories of what they’ve seen or heard, resist the urge to dismiss their emotions with avoidance or denial. Instead consider these helpful tips:

DON’T tell kids it is unconditionally going to be okay, because for children and families who stand to lose their health insurance, residence, or civil freedoms, it may not be.

DO offer reassurance by discussing and modeling how to unconditionally support and care for classmates and friends who may be facing unique worries and stress at this time.

DON’T avoid conversations about racism, sexism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and intolerance.

DO put those conversations in an age-appropriate context that includes ways children and teens can stand up for peers when they witness their exclusion.

DON’T try to minimize a child’s fears by normalizing distressing language and behavior.

DO listen to their fears and talk about reasons for hope, including their ability to actively express empathy, support, and advocacy for peers whose fears may be different, more acute, imminent, or sustained.

These moments are opportunities to model engagement, tolerance, and compassion for children and teens trying to make sense of a world in which their values may be challenged, demeaned, or disregarded. Ultimately, what we are talking about when we talk to our kids about racism, is the type of person they can actively become.