Collins O. Airhihenbuwa, PhD, MPH


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