EMBRACING DIFFERENCE AS CULTURAL HEALING

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa, PhD, MPH

https://u-rise.org/blog/

In my last blog on Black Male phobia, I addressed the police fear of the Black male body and raised questions about what we should do to address this form of fear. The challenge of addressing racism rests on us all and there are actions we can begin to take to create healing spaces for promoting anti-racism. What I want to do in this contribution is offer some insights on ways to begin to address racism by facing and embracing all cultures and identities. As James Baldwin noted, “not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” What I focus on here is how we can face racism at three levels: the systemic level (institutional accountability); the cultural group level, to promote group accountability among members of the privileged cultural groups (e.g., willingness to understand whiteness culturally); and, the personal level (individual accountability) in the form of willingness and commitment to take a stand against any form of identity devaluation.

As an academic, quite often questions of racism and cultural disenfranchisement are posed in ways that one expects the locus of intervention to occur in someone else’s space and location. We seldom question the systemic, structurally determined processes of reward and consequences that exist in our own academic communities and the processes by which they reinforce inaction against racism.  Last month, I took the human subjects Conflict of Interest (COI) course, which university research investigators are required to pass before we can submit a research proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The course and test are administered, as a form of institutional accountability, by an independent group called Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI). Universities can also create their own additional course and test to supplement and/or expand on their specific areas of value and interest. These courses and tests are regularly updated to include new and relevant information deemed useful to minimizing ethical conflicts of interest for institutions and research investigators. Each new update helps investigators recognize the value both the university and NIH (as well as other federal agencies) place on preventing conflicts of interest and learning how to remedy those that occur inadvertently. The modules that are currently covered include protecting the rights of children and prisoners and preventing sexual harassment, among others.  Overall, I studied and tested for 25 modules, including one on the social and behavioral sciences.

What struck me was the absence of any module on preventing or mitigating racism.

There was occasional reference to unconscious bias and, as I have noted in the previous blog, addressing such bias is important but not sufficient to prevent against fear of the Black body. I believe that anti-racism ought to be included in the standard topical areas in which all researchers are to study and be tested. Concerns about racism have been expressed—although in many situations only quietly—when dynamics of power relationships in teaching between students and faculty, or in research mentorship between junior and senior faculty. Indeed, many institutions have experienced incidents of racist acts being reported by students and faculty with underrepresented faculty shouldering the responsibility to offer support to students and also de facto tasks of preventing future incidents. As a form of institutional accountability, CITI tests can represent one mechanism used to express what NIH and academic institutions value in research and what they will not tolerate by demanding that researchers complete and have a passing grade in key topics before their proposal can be submitted. If researchers are not cued to learn the consequences of racism in academic and research settings as well as the importance of anti-racism in research—as an important value in diversifying the professorate—how can we promote an anti-racist research environment as is already rightly done in the CITI course modules and tests that focus on preventing sexual harassment? And, for that matter, how do we begin to have conversations about whiteness as a culture with positive attributes to be acknowledged and negative attributes to be changed?

Group-level accountability can be challenging, especially in cultures that prize individuality. Yet solutions to address racism, rightly or wrongly, are often advanced at the group level. Therefore, holding whole groups accountable may offer one approach to promoting anti-racist society. To begin, we must see whiteness as a culture just as we see masculinity and men as a socially constructed gender category. Historical privileging of whiteness as an a-cultural group should be corrected. Understanding whiteness as a group, like any other group, allows for healing conversations about healthy differences. Teaching and sharing about differences that make healthy differences is an important process to engage the discourse on whiteness as a cultural group. To illustrate, in an April 30th 2019 contribution in the Washington Post, Professor Jonathan Metzl of Vanderbilt University wrote about the need for whites to begin to understand whiteness and embrace both positive as well as negative aspects of their culture. According to Metzl, the conversation about whiteness as a group calls for white people to speak openly about its culture rather than limit such conversation to debates around group position on immigration and guns to which the current political dispensation has reduced whiteness. In what follows, I share a personal example of why it is important to unpack whiteness.

While a junior faculty some three decades ago, African American students, supported by some whites and other students, mounted a major campaign on my university campus (Penn State), as was the case on similar campuses, for institutional leaders to create spaces for teaching and research that focus on African Americans and the African diaspora. Many campuses like mine at the time responded to these requests with the reluctance that would echo the belief asserted by Frederick Douglas that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” In many cases, salutary gestures (e.g., limited scholarships) were thrown at the students with the expectation that the students would be grateful for them. At my university, African American faculty led other underrepresented minorities in debates and discussions that led to recommendations designed to offer guidance to the university administration about ways to diversify the faculty even before these important demands were made by students.  After all, research has shown that teaching students in ways that draw positively on their history and culture offers them a richer college experience. It is also an excellent way to recruit underrepresented minority students, and recruit and retain more underrepresented minority faculty. In the absence of a critical mass of African American students, the cafeteria was a space where they segregated themselves. So it was that at the height of these intense student demands at Penn State, a major television network contacted the late Dr. Terrell Jones to ask for permission to come to Penn State and interview some Black students.

This interview was to be a part of a special program the network was to launch focusing on the question of why Black students sat together in the cafeteria. Terrell had served as director of student housing and subsequently became Vice Provost for Educational Equity. Terrell was an authority on this topic as he had written about it and given many lectures to university administrators, faculty and students on issues of diversity and inclusion. The goal of the television program may have been well intentioned but its focus only on Black students reified in their program the question W.E.B Dubois posed on the question of race relations in the Souls of Black Folks: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Blackness has always been constructed as a burden in American. The issue of Black students sitting together in the cafeteria had always been framed as Black students refusing to integrate into predominately white institutions, but never framed as white culture being unwelcoming to Black students. Terrell reflected on the request from the television channel and decided to grant them permission to come to campus but with one condition. When these journalists arrived at the cafeteria, they would have to walk through rows of several White students to get to the Black students they wished to interview. What the journalists must also do was to interview these White students to ask them why they are sitting together in the cafeteria. The request was simple and the task was direct; however, the core of the message was lost on the journalists and the network. The request was basically to ask the journalists to shift the locus of the burden away from Black students alone and share it with the White students as well. It was a message that if diversity and inclusion were to be a responsibility for students, it should be a responsibility for all students. It should no longer be seen as a responsibility to be championed only by Blacks and others who are burdened with disenfranchisement. Unfortunately, the journalist considered the White students sitting together as the norm, but Black students sitting together as a form of deviance that warranted examination. For them, privilege and whiteness had no culture. Needless to say, the network uninvited themselves since they had not considered whiteness as a culture to share in racial burdens. They had not considered the importance of unpacking whiteness as a cultural group.

We are all part of one or more groups, but we also have individual responsibilities to which we should be accountable on the journey toward making the United States of America a more perfect union. It begins with our commitment to affirming others who are not like us, and insisting on creating spaces of zero tolerance for marginalization of any kind. There is a sense among many that for a society to achieve equity, the locus of behaviors to be changed rest with those who are oppressed—those whose faces are at the bottom of the well, as Derrick Bell’s book is aptly titled. Thus, government and other social programs addressing inequity tend to focus on examining the psychology of the oppressed: What is their genetic handicap? What is their social or economic boot strap? Why are they behaving badly and does this contribution to their disproportionate health burdens?

Toni Morison, in Playing in the Dark, and Franz Fanon, in Black Skin, White Mask, have long pointed out why it is critical to examine the psychology of the oppressor in as much as one examines the psychology of the oppressed. On the personal commitment level, each person has to be able to speak up when another group is talked about negatively. In any given situation at the individual level, the person at the margin in one situation can also be the person at the center at another. This was brought home to me as I saw again the documentary of the life of Dr. Maya Angelou. Reading books about and watching documentaries on the lives of such accomplished figures helps me to retool, and to deepen my commitment, to the challenge ahead. It helps to be reminded that we stand on the shoulders of so many and our only expression of gratitude is to never relent and to pass it on. In the documentary on Dr. Angelou, Oprah Winfrey talks about a particular occasion when Dr. Angelou had a party in her home and invited some guests. During the evening, Dr. Angelou overheard one of the guests making homophobic comments and jokes. She heard these comments and went straight to the person and asked the individual to leave her home because such comments are not welcome in her home. The incident was a lesson both for the homophobe as well as any other person present in her home that she has zero tolerance for the devaluation of others for their difference. We have varying degrees of control over our own space at home, work, play, and pray and we can make choices about whom we allow to be in our space. We must all commit to ensuring that our personal and professional spaces maintain a zero tolerance for negativity and devaluing others. 

As a student and scholar of global health, I continue to be baffled by the persistence of inequity, particularly in the way we talk about what is wrong and on whose body a solution must be attained. There is the assumption that achieving equity requires those shouldering the burden to change their behavior as inequity is best measured by the disproportionate burden of disease they experience compared to the privileged group, whether the privilege is based on race, gender, sexuality, or nationality. The focus on the body of the oppressed frames the issue as a need to study their deviance and why the burdened group is weighed down. When we alter the framing of inequity from deviance to affirming differences, we can then begin a conversation that affirms that we are all different.

Privilege has some responsibility in equity. This is the beginning of a cultural healing.

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa

BLACK MALE PHOBIA – IS IT BIAS, FEAR OR…?

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa, PhD, MPH

https://u-rise.org/blog/

At a family gathering over the Easter break, a conversation arose over the various kinds of phobias people have. Of particular interest is when what is feared by one person is treasured by another. There are some kinds of fear for which general acceptance or at least understanding can be assured even by those who do not suffer such fear. For example, those who are not afraid of height might nevertheless appreciate that others do. This is also true of other fears like being in closed spaces. However, when the fear is of a treasured common and popular household pet such as a cat or a dog, the reaction may be visited by a different kind of understanding or questionable acceptance. The reaction seems to demand that the person who holds the fear explain when and how it started. How can you be afraid of cats? You mean you are afraid of dogs? The conversation led me to offer a refrain that ‘fear has no logic.’ No logic in the sense that individual experiences are so different that a simple explanation for why the fear continues will not end the fear. 

The degree to which there is empathy and tolerance for fear tend to reflect the belief that certain fears are group-based rather than individual-level phenomena. When fear is group based, such as fear that many Africans have of snakes, lacking fear of snakes stands out as an exception to the rule. If you do not believe me, watch a recent stand-up routine by Trevor Noah about Africans and fear of snakes in a comical encounter with a French person who made fun of him for fearing snakes. Even then, what we tolerate and accept about fear becomes more complex when on the one hand a sizable proportion of group members hold the fear while on the other hand another sizable proportion does not, as is the case with Black folks’ relationship with dogs. Whatever the ‘cause’ of the fear, it seems to me that fear does not always have a logic. By this, I mean there is no simple, cause/effect relationship that individuals who hold this fear can offer to explain it. Innate and learned reasons have been offered to explain the roots of some form of fear, if only to reassure the person who experiences it that there is nothing wrong with them. For example, given the variety of fears that individuals in one family can hold, it may be impossible to find a simple cure because there is no shared, logical cause/effect relationship. Therefore, fear is learned and could be unlearned. This is particularly important to remember if the consequences of fear can determine life and death. If this is the case, what can we make of the fear of Black Male body?

Fear of and, therefore, dislike of Black people, especially African Americans, has long been established and defined as ‘colorophobia’ in the 19th century, today as ‘Blackaphobia’ and, more recently, “anti-black racism”.  For generations, fear of the Black body, particularly the Black Male Body, has been at the center of conversations and research on police brutality and use of deadly force. Those who fear dogs avoid them rather than trying to kill them. Those who own potentially violent dogs are held responsible for training them to be restrained when they encounter people. In the case of fear of the Black male body by the police, however, the reaction has been for police to shoot and kill.

On March 20th of this year, 2019, a 29 year old African American male was shot to death in State College, Pennsylvania by a police officer. State College, PA is home to Penn State University where I spent over 30 years of my career as a faculty. Osaze Osagie (https://www.theroot.com/police-kill-29-year-old-black-man-they-tried-to-serve-w-1833502085) was a child of many of our families not only in the sense of a ‘village’ but in the reality of having a shared culture and place. In this deadly encounter, as in many similar encounters over the years, the police officer claimed he feared for his life to justify shooting and killing Osaze. This is exactly the same as what we heard in other cases of Blacks killings, particularly Black males. Two days later following the killing of Osaze Osagie, March 22nd, a jury acquitted the police officer who shot and killed 17 year old Antwon Rose II (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/22/us/antwon-rose-shooting.html) in Pittsburgh, PA, leading to protests to decry the persistent injustice for Black lives particularly young Black males. It is reported that more than 200 such killings have occurred in just the first quarter of this year, 2019. In all these killings by the police, one explanation commonly offered is that the police feared for their life, even when the Black person that was reportedly feared was running away from the police and ends up being shot in the back. When these killings occur, what is not covered in the news, yet long decried in the Black community, is the devaluation of the Black body. The devaluation I refer to is a process through which the Black body comes to be considered inhuman or subhuman. During encounters with the police, their fears (or claims of fear) of the Black male body turn the encounter into a momentary war whereby the Black male becomes an inhuman super predator whose very presence during such encounters is believed to represent an imminent and present danger to the police. This predatory framing of the Black male body has become a normative group (police and whites) fear; those who lack this fear are considered the exception. How do we Black people then protect our sons from this epidemic of killings of young Black males. Do some police officers suffer from Black Male phobia? And, if so, can they actually shoot and kill their way out of their own fear?

Naming deadly encounters as racism often forecloses constructive engagement with people whose fears have led them to kill, and it silences the subjects of their fear. New psychological work on forms of bias (unconscious and implicit) are helping to bring to light the negative attitudes we all hold toward those who are different from us, even though these attitudes vary by levels and degrees. This work is useful, though it does not address the epidemic of killings of young Black males fully. For people who engage in behaviors that silence the voices of the others (e.g., not acknowledging their presence or the value of their contributions), the term microaggression can help unveil the chronicity of certain habits and behaviors that silence other voices. Sadly, although we now understand about implicit biases and microaggressions better, using these methods to unveil the habits and behaviors of silencing others does not address the epidemic of killings of young Black men at the hands of the police.

It is possible that the issue is that we use terms of inclusion such as biases to cover racism, sexism and other isms related to silencing of voices. While not discounting the values of biases as currently studied, what is needed is a focus on fear of the Black male body. What if we reframed police fear of Black male bodies as a learned phobia? Like the biases for which we have tests and measures to determine individual scores, do we have a ‘Blackaphobia test’? What if every time a police officer used a deadly weapon against a Black person, all police officers in their department or precinct would have to take the test? The results of the test would be used to develop interventions to treat the individuals and their group collective phobias. Could such collective responsibility and accountability on the part of the precinct and department compel each officer to be more restrained in their encounters with Black males to avoid the consequence of subjecting their entire unit/group to such a test?

If fear of the Black male body were framed in part as a critical form of Blackaphobia, could that make a difference in saving black lives?

How do we institutionalize collective responsibility to address fear of the Black body?

Collins O Airhihenbuwa

Maternal and Infant Health At the Cross-roads of Racism and Colorism

 April 17, 2019: Jaime Slaughter-Acey, PhD, MPH

For over 40 years now, Black infants have had an infant mortality rate ~double the rate of White infants.1,2 Likewise, rates for other perinatal indicators of the nation’s health, preterm birth (<37 weeks’ gestation), low birthweight (<2500 grams), and maternal morbidity and mortality, also reflect longstanding racial disparities of similar or greater magnitude. Last year (2018), NY Times Magazine author Linda Villarosa brought renewed attention to a very old problem by asking the question, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life or Death Crisis?[JS1] ” Ms. Villarosa correctly answered, it “has everything to do with the lived experiences of being a Black woman in American.” 

Empirical research consistently shows racial disparities in perinatal health outcomes persist despite consideration for socioeconomic status and other traditional risk factors (e.g., health behaviors, chronic comorbidities). In the last two decades, population health researchers have come to acknowledge race as a social construct,3,4 with an ever-increasing body of evidence studying racism as a social determinant of maternal and infant health outcomes.[JS2] 5-7 Still, most racial disparities research fails to consider skin color, our most visible physical attribute, it social meaning and intersection with race.

For Black Americans, racism and colorism are part and parcel of daily lived experiences that extend over the lifespan—birth, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—with intergenerational implications.8  Racism is a system for continued maintenance of social dominance and oppression that structures opportunities and assigns value to interpersonal exchange based on individuals perceived or assigned race/ethnic group.9 Colorism is a phenotype-based continuum that assigns privilege and disadvantage based upon the color of one’s skin.10  Privilege is allocated to individuals with lighter complexions and more European-like features while disadvantage is assigned to those with darker complexions and more Afrocentric features.8,11,12  Colorism is an institutional outgrowth of white supremacy and is more prevalent in societies that have a history of slavery and/or colonization.10 Thus, skin tone is not simply a physical trait reflective of value neutral bodily differences. 10

Figure 1.  Colorism operates across multiple social contexts

Figure 1. Colorism operates across multiple social contexts

A popular misnomer about colorism is that it functions only within communities of color as a form of internalized racism. In truth, colorism operates across multiple social contexts since it manifests from cultural racism, individual and societal beliefs in the supremacy of one group over another group that have become rooted into the cultural standards of our institutions, ideology, and everyday actions.13 Therefore, one can experience colorism not just from within one’s own racial/ethnic group (in-group colorism), but from other racial/ethnic groups and society as a whole (out-group colorism), Figure 1.  

Experiences of marginalization related to racism and colorism may combine, overlap or intersect with other systems of oppression related to aspects of social identity to affect health. America’s Black women face multiple and simultaneous sources of chronic stress, stigma and discrimination that are tied to her identities as a woman, a racial/ethnic minority, and her skin color, Figure 2. The social significance of skin tone for Black women has been documented in relation to educational and economic attainment, the marital market, and psychosocial attributes including self-esteem, racial identity and socialization, and perceived stress (See Herring, Keith, & Horton, 2004; Keith 2009; Adams et al, 2016 ).  Research investigating the impact of colorism on Black women’s health outcomes is in its infancy, but existing studies suggest skin tone, as a proxy for colorism, is a predictor of systolic and diastolic blood pressure,16,17 perceived stress,18 and body mass index,16,19 and allostatic load for Black women.20 

Figure 2 . Race, Skin Color, and Gender intersect to affect Health for Women of Color

Figure 2. Race, Skin Color, and Gender intersect to affect Health for Women of Color

There is a need for population health research to consider the implications of racism and colorism on the health of Black women, especially with regard to perinatal health outcomes given the magnitude of Black-White disparities. Through funding from the Russell Sage Foundation[JS3] , my research team is examining the multidimensional nature of race and its intersection with skin color in relation to the African American women’s birth outcomes—specifically preterm birth, low birthweight, and fetal growth restriction. Preliminary findings among a subsample (n=700) of Black women living in Metropolitan Detroit, MI suggest maternal skin tone is an important predictor of preterm birth and low birthweight risk (Figure 3).

Figure 3 . % PTB and LBW in Black Women (N=700), Stratified by Self-reported Skin Tone, 2009-2011

Figure 3. % PTB and LBW in Black Women (N=700), Stratified by Self-reported Skin Tone, 2009-2011

Disclaimer: This work has been supported in part by Grant # 96-18-03 from the Russell Sage Foundation to Dr. Slaughter at the University of Minnesota. The LIFE study was funded by NIH grant no. [R01HD058510] to Dr. Misra at Wayne State University. Any opinions expressed are those of the author(s) alone and should not be construed as representing the opinions of the Russel Sage Foundation or NIH.

Reference

1.            Mathews T, MacDorman MF. Infant mortality statistics from the 2009 period linked birth/infant death data set. National vital statistics reports. 2013;61(8):1-28.

2.            Singh GK, van Dyck PC. Infant Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007. M a CHB Health Resources and Services Administration (Ed) Rockville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services. 2010.

3.            Smedley A, Smedley BD. Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. Am Psychol. 2005;60(1):16-26.

4.            Smedley BD, Stith AY, Nelson AR. Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care: Summary. National Academy Press; 2002.

5.            Misra DP, Slaughter-Acey JC, Giurgescu C, Sealy-Jefferson S, Nowak A. Why Do Black Women Experience Higher Rates of Preterm Birth? Current Epidemiology Reports. 2017;4(2):83-97.

6.            Alhusen JL, Bower KM, Epstein E, Sharps P. Racial Discrimination and Adverse Birth Outcomes: An Integrative Review. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2016;61(6):707-720.

7.            Giurgescu C, McFarlin BL, Lomax J, Craddock C, Albrecht A. Racial discrimination and the black-white gap in adverse birth outcomes: a review. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2011;56(4):362-370.

8.            Keith VM, Nguyen AW, Taylor RJ, Mouzon DM, Chatters LM. Microaggressions, Discrimination, and Phenotype among African Americans: A Latent Class Analysis of the Impact of Skin Tone and BMI. Sociological Inquiry. 2017;87(2):233-255.

9.            Omi M, Winant H. Racial formation in the United States. Routledge; 2014.

10.          Keith VM. A colorstruck world: Skin tone, achievement, and self-esteem among African American women. Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. 2009:25-39.

11.          Hunter M. The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociology Compass. 2007;1(1):237-254.

12.          Hunter M. “If You're Light You're Alright” Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color. Gender & Society. 2002;16(2):175-193.

13.          Jones J. Constructing race and deconstructing racism: a cultural psychology approach. In: Bernai G, Trimble J, Burlew A, eds. Handbook of Racial & Ethnic Minority Psychology. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2003.

14.          Glenn EN. Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. Stanford University Press; 2009.

15.          Adams EA, Kurtz-Costes BE, Hoffman AJ. Skin tone bias among African Americans: Antecedents and consequences across the life span. Dev Rev. 2016;40:93-116.

16.          Armstead CA, Hébert JR, Griffin EK, Prince GM. A question of color: The influence of skin color and stress on resting blood pressure and body mass among African American women. Journal of Black Psychology. 2014;40(5):424-450.

17.          Sweet E, McDade TW, Kiefe CI, Liu K. Relationships between skin color, income, and blood pressure among African Americans in the CARDIA Study. Am J Public Health. 2007;97(12):2253-2259.

18.          Uzogara EE. Dark and sick, light and healthy: black women's complexion-based health disparities. Ethn Health. 2017:1-22.

19.          Hargrove TW. BMI Trajectories in Adulthood: The Intersection of Skin Color, Gender, and Age among African Americans. 2018;59(4):501-519.

20.          Hargrove TW. Light privilege? Skin tone stratification in health among African Americans. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. 2018:2332649218793670.

 [JS1]Link out to article https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html

 [JS2]The When the Bough Breaks episode from the docuseries Unnatural Causes might be a good link out.

http://www.unnaturalcauses.org/episode_descriptions.php?page=2

 [JS3]Link out to my grant announcement on RSF website.

https://www.russellsage.org/awarded-project/skin-tone-discrimination-and-birth-outcomes-african-american-women

Matters of Life and Death: Racism and the Global Struggle for Black Lives

We are dying, our people are dying... —Marielle Franco speaking to a group of Black Women at Casa Das Pretas about the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro’s poor, Black communities, March 14, 2018

September 14, 2018: Sharrelle Barber, ScD, MPH

As a social epidemiologist who examines the links between structural racism and racial health inequalities, I am particularly concerned about the lives (often truncated) and deaths (too often, violent) of Black women and men. Though my passion and commitment to this work is rooted in my identity as a Black woman born and raised in the South, the renewed urgency in explicitly examining racism cannot be divorced from the violent and unjust deaths that have punctuated my career in academia and the resulting activism sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement which began five years ago. Nor can it be separated from leaders in the public health and medical community—in particular Black women like Dr. Camara Jones, Dr. Chandra Ford, Dr. Mindy Fullilove, and Dr. Mary Bassett—who have challenged us to name racism as a cause of poor health and a fundamental driver of racial inequalities in morbidity and mortality in the United States. As Dr. Bassett adeptly reminds us, the way we “frame a problem is inextricable from how we solve it.” And as my colleague and friend Dr. Zinzi Bailey notes in a recent publication in The Lancet, “without a vision of health equity and the commitment to tackle structural racism, health inequities will persist, thwarting efforts to eliminate disparities and improve the health of all groups…”

About two years ago, I began research that applied this critical lens to Brazil, recognizing that the fight against racism and the struggle for Black Lives is a global one. Extending the scope of my research to Brazil was not far-fetched; rather, it was a logical expansion rooted in striking parallels I observed between the two contexts. Like the U.S., Brazil’s history is rooted in the vicious and violent legacy of slavery, as Portuguese colonizers imported an estimated five million west and central Africans as slaves during its nearly 300-year history in the country, 10 times the number imported by the United States. Brazil was also the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888, and according to data from the 2010 census, has the largest African-descended population outside the continent of Africa. And although mainstream narratives perpetuate the myth of  a “racial democracy” in Brazil, racism and discrimination in the country run deep and manifest in systems and structures of power and privilege that maintain the marginalized status of individuals of African descent.

My recent collaborative work examining residential segregation—one of the most visible manifestations of structural racism—and its links to chronic disease using data from the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Adult Health (ELSA-Brasil) was my first attempt at demonstrating, empirically, how racism is embodied in Brazil. But it was on March 14, 2018 that I became keenly aware that just like the United States, racism in Brazil can be violent. And deadly.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I attended an event in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, entitled “Young Black Women Moving Power Structures” as part of the 21 Days Against Racism Campaign taking place across several cities in Brazil. My colleague encouraged me to attend the event to deepen my understanding of grassroots, anti-racist activism in Rio and to meet Marielle Franco, an encounter that would prove to be transformative.

Marielle Franco was a Black, queer, feminist human rights activist born and raised in the Maré favela, located in Rio’s North Zone. In 2016, she was voted into local office, receiving the fifth highest vote count out of 51 city councilors elected that year. Marielle was the only Black person on the Rio city council and was part of the mere 5% of Black and Indigenous women occupying seats of power in local government in Brazil. Marielle’s political platform was rooted in the longstanding legacy of Black feminist activism in Brazil and reflected an ethic that valued the lives of those who have, quite literally, been forced to the margins of Brazilian society: Blacks, women, the poor, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ+).

Marielle was also very critical of Brazil’s public security policies, which she argued served to “control and rebuke” Black and poor communities and fuel Brazil’s growing prison industrial complex. Marielle’s denouncement of state-sanctioned violence echoed the activism against Black Genocide in Brazil that spans decades and, in its contemporary form, is embodied in Vidas Negras, Brazil’s grassroots movement for Black Lives. As a sociologist with training from one of the most prestigious institutions in Brazil—Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, she brought a critical analysis to the issue and compiled empirical data to illustrate that “Racism is Not an Opinion”:

Marielle’s policy and advocacy weren’t just about the numbers.  During work early in her career with the Human Rights Commission in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, Marielle routinely met with and advocated for the families of victims of police brutality. She understood, first-hand, the gut-wrenching reality of losing a loved one to senseless violence and was committed to using her voice and her platform to make a difference. In February 2018, her public critique of state-sanctioned violence intensified when the federal government implemented an intervention that put military forces in charge of local police in Rio. In her very vocal public denouncement of the federal intervention, she made sure the names and faces directly affected were known. In an op-ed she submitted to Jornal do Brasil on the morning of March 14, she wrote a scathing synopsis and critique of the intervention and dared to “say the names” of Black women who had been killed due to what she described as a “senseless war”: Alba Valéria Machado. Natalina da Conceição. Janaína da Silva Oliveira. Tainá dos Santos.

She went on to say that

“Black women living on the peripheries lose their children to this deadly viciousness… And the deaths have a consistent racial identity, social class, and neighborhood of dwelling”.

Furthermore, she asserted that “violence” is a direct by-product of entrenched inequalities, and cannot be solved with weapons, but with policy:

“Without a doubt, public security should no longer be pursued with weapons, but with public policy in all areas: health, education, culture, and the creation of jobs and income.”

A poster for Marielle’s March 14th Casa Das Pretas advocacy event.

At the gathering of young Black Women on March 14, Marielle called attention to the ongoing violence. But like the fierce and empowering leader she was, she viewed those gathered in the room as the embodiment of the power, strength, and resistance necessary to bring about radical change, asserting that it was necessary for Black Women to “occupy every place with our bodies.” Only then would Black lives, women’s lives, poor lives, and queer lives truly matter.

I left the event inspired and in awe of Marielle and the courageous Black Women I encountered at Casa Das Pretas. But less than an hour later, the life was literally sucked out of me, when I received the news that four bullets to the head in a targeted political assassination had taken her life, and the life of her driver Anderson Gomes.

To say the least, this moment changed me. It shook me to my core. But just like the senseless deaths of Sandra, Charleena, Nia, and countless other Black women, Marielle’s death ignited in me an even deeper commitment to continuing my research examining structural racism and health inequalities both domestically and abroad. For me, this means naming and challenging racism in our scientific and public discourse, using data to make the invisible visible, mobilizing data and research for action and advocacy, and ensuring that our dialogue about racism, health inequalities, and the struggle for Black Lives is, in fact, a global one . For me, this work has quite literally become a Matter of Life and Death.

Today, September 14, 2018, marks the 6-month anniversary of Marielle Franco’s assassination.

*This guest blog originally posted via Robert W Johnson Foundation New Connections.

Revisiting Frederick Douglass' “WHAT TO THE AMERICAN SLAVE IS YOUR 4TH OF JULY?”

A recent conversation with doctoral student, Natalie Bradford, who is re-reading Frederick Douglass' seminal speech, "The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro", prompts this blogpost. Douglass delivered the speech on July 5, 1852 at a celebration of the Fourth of July hosted by the Rochester (New York) Ladies' Anti-slavery Society. Imagine the courage it took to deliver the speech as he did through the prism of the African American experience, which is the experience of being a perpetual, intimate witness to both the beautiful ideals of the American project and the utter hypocrisy with which it is implemented. The speech remains instructive in 2018 as stark departures from those ideals now characterize the national landscape: persistent white supremacy, overt anti-black and other forms of racism, nativism and anti-immigrant hostility, exploitation of/extraction from Native lands, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, racialized mass incarceration, and a myriad of practices and policies buttressing economic inequality.

Re-visiting this speech on the Fourth of July is a way to honor Douglass' work by learning from it. Below are two excerpted readings of it; the second one is a brief excerpt for those seeking a shorter version that captures the spirit of the full one.