The Most Important Questions We Won’t Answer For You

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My fellow pediatrician and friend Nia Heard-Garris and I wrote a piece on medium about how White Supremacy and anti-Blackness show up in medicine and how to start the conversation.

Check it out here and let me know what you think!

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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.

 

My Anger

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Although I write a blog that centers people of color in exploring the connections between the medical system and race  – an activity that has always been fundamentally personal – I rarely discuss how it personally affects me.

The occasions in which I have, were driven by my need to make sense of Trayvon and Walter, Tamir and Freddie and to reconcile their lives with how I move in my life, as a black physician. But there is no sense to be made of state-sanctioned murder and each time I left the task weary with emotion.

I used those emotions to power 6 months of writing and editing my first submission to Pediatrics, the most important academic journal in my field, on police violence; both begging and demanding this type of violence be considered a devastating threat to public health and safety for children of color. The first comment my co-authors (also black women) and I were asked to address was what the editors called our “anger” and the last was to “say something nice about the police.”

Here I was, asking to be seen; asking for black children and families to be seen; but having to respond to why I don’t see police and why what a white man perceives as my emotion, is a problem to be addressed, in writing. My emotion. That they named anger.

To be labeled angry and asked to publicly disavow said emotion for professional legitimacy was nothing new, for me, my co-authors, or centuries of black women accosted by the limited public characterizations of our person-hood. But when they named my emotions anger, did they also name my tears? Did they name the deep humiliation I processed to explain, to a pediatric medical journal, why the deaths of black parents and children should be a priority?

Did they furiously, nauseatingly, mind-numbingly, cry over the public executions of their people? Did they choke and swallow those emotions back everyday just to function as a productive adult in the world? Did they wake to bury the devastation that allows them to hold academic conversations about the threats, challenges, and disparities that may amount to the extinction of their people?

In medicine, if we talk about racism at all, we talk about how it is unfair – but no ones fault really. Short of bias training that validates a generalized lack of explicit accountability – we primarily do nothing. It is as if medicine thinks the solution to centuries of systematic racism and racial inequality that continues to poison black bodies, young and old alike – through public divestment, disease and varying degrees of despondency – is self-reflection.

But it is killing us.

Racism. Is. Killing. Black. People.

Sometimes I feel the poison in me. Squeezing my chest in anxiety, fear, or fury as I navigate the complex terrain of my public female black-ness, trying to wear my emotional and intellectual complexity in a way that at best, allows me to be seen but at least, prevents me from being dismissed altogether. The daily work of avoiding the silencing that accompanies being mistaken as simply an “angry black female” while also finding safe spaces to be a black female who can hold anger and the emotional complexity inherent to full humanity – is an extra job, that I do, at my regular job and on vacation.

Sometimes I see the poison in my family, as they do the work of making space for their whole self in a world that can easily, effortlessly limit them to an assumed identity. I watch them negotiating other people’s comfort in an exhausting performance of excellence and I understand the raw pain blackness chafes on their humanity.

Racism excludes black people from public goods and private sympathies. It is the root cause of health disparities, the education gap, the wealth gap, the gender wage gap for black women, and the unconscionable incidence of institutional violence against black bodies.

And in so much that medicine ignores that root cause, it is and will remain complicit in the maintenance of institutional racism, both inside our walls and out.

So just in case you have wondered or are wondering, yes, I am angry.

I feel intense and unapologetic anger. But know, my anger isn’t the poison, racism is.