Anti-Racism Reading Group #5: Seeing White

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read summaries of previous discussions by following these links: one, twothree, four.

For the fifth anti-racism reading group, we listened to Seeing White, an excellent podcast hosted by John Biewen at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In it, Biewen and regular guest Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika explore the history and consequences of White racial identity in a way that is both extremely accessible and intellectually rigorous.

This was a particularly ambitious project because the podcast series is fourteen episodes long, meaning there were many hours of material to discuss. For the purposes of our discussion group, we focused on the first three episodes which cover the history of Whiteness and the last two episodes on anti-racist action. However, I encouraged the group (as I encourage you) to listen to the full series, because every episode is worth your time.

Given the expanse of the source material and the conversation, I don’t have a thorough summary of the discussion, but rather three items of conversation that I found particularly interesting.


The purpose of racism

Something that was especially impactful to me in the podcast was the discussion with Ibram X. Kendi regarding his book Stamped from the Beginning and the relationship between slavery and racism. In particular, I was surprised to find that I had the causality between the two backwards. While I had previously thought of slavery as a progression from underlying racist beliefs, this turned out to be inconsistent with the documented history. Rather, it was only after the establishment of a highly profitable slaving economy that Europeans invented racial categorization.

As Chenjerai Kumanyika points out in that episode:

“You know they [Europeans] didn’t say like “oh man here’s these people, they’re like subhuman and like three-fifths of a human being so what can we do let’s create slavery.” No. I mean that’s kind of like what I grew up on and what people think, they just didn’t know. And it’s like, no. What they knew was that there was an economy there, like rice and cotton and other things, sugar, that had to be produced to make this economy go. And they wanted cheap labor and they enslaved people and then they later sort of deployed the science and all these other cultural forms to match and support the idea that they could exploit these people because they were inferior.”

This paradigm is important because when we understand racism in this way—as a tool to maintain structures of human exploitation that would otherwise be unsustainable or indefensible—we better understand racism’s power and persistence. From chattel slavery in the historical American South to the abuse of immigrant laborers in modern American agriculture, it is only by dehumanizing our perception of the Other through racialization that we (White people) can sustain these awful enterprises.

While many White people recognize this dehumanization, at the end of the day we find ourselves sustaining these awful enterprises because we are addicted to the material advantages that they bring us.

The interaction of race and class

In Part 3, Biewen and Kumanyika build on this understanding of race to explore its interaction with class in U.S. history.

This begins in a conversation about the armed uprisings in the American colonies in the late 17th century during which African slaves and European indentured servants fought side by side against the wealthy elite that governed the colonies. This series of rebellions triggered the enactment of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 which existed in part to break the back of this class-based alliance.

Kumanyika breaks this down in-depth:

“If you look at part 23 of the Slave Act, it was also, it was encouraging, encouraged white free people to hunt down and capture escaped slaves. And there was this whole reward system that involved tobacco and rewarding people with tobacco so you’re now incentivizing free whites to try to capture free black folks. And there’s also this part that 14 deals with marriage. So any white man or woman who marries a person of African or Indian descent is now going to be committed to jail for a period of six months without bail and has to pay 10 pounds as a fine. So, what you really can see there is like, you can really see the intensification of any racial division really happening there through these laws.”

And later, Kumanyika quotes a speech given by John C. Calhoun (a wealthy slaver) in 1848:

“With us, the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class and are respected and treated as equals.”

Again, we see racial categorization used as wedge to disrupt nascent class consciousness in the United States.

This is a recurring theme in American history and indeed, racism may be the main reason that the socialist public policies supported in most of the United States’ peer countries (e.g. universal health care or a robust welfare state) never caught on here. Indeed, as attempts are made to de-segregate America’s existing public services you see subsequent aggressive disinvestment, as has been the case in America’s public education system.

The politics of teaching history

It was both remarkable and unsurprising that most of the history discussed in the first three episodes was not a part of the grade school or high school curricula for any of the people present. Whether our schooling was public or private, religious or secular, the relevant history of race went mostly unaddressed in our respective formative educations.

I for one was taught that the classification of the races was a scientifically impartial affair, driven by the same presumably neutral Enlightenment-era curiosity that led Carl Linnaeus to attempt his classification of the species. Of course, as already discussed, the classification of the races was actually a political action meant to support existing structures of exploitation and falsely cultivate an illision of “natural order” to a system of extreme inequality and dehumanization.

Having two teachers in our discussion group was extremely helpful as we broke down some of the reasons that this kind of disinformation enters into our curricula:

  1. There is inertia to curriculum and many teachers pass on the same content and framing that they themselves were taught during their own primary and secondary education.
  2. Educators are disproportionately White and there is an understandable aversion to teaching a history that implicates one’s own group as aggressor or oppressor.
  3. Even for those willing to teach history in a way that challenges White Supremacist mythology, there is a realistic fear of public backlash such as was seen in this recent case in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
  4. Such pushback is likely to be stronger and more harmful for teachers of color.
  5. In some states, there are explicit attempts by Boards of Education to censor or bias history curriculum such as has been the case in Texas.

This is not even close to a complete account of our conversation, but rather just some of the topics I personally found most interesting. I’m opening up a listserv to disseminate invitations and readings for the discussion group, and I’m hoping that it will also be a place where people can share their own reflections on the discussions. With authors’ permission, I may cross-post some of those reflections here. If you want to get in on that listserv and you know me in real life, please get in touch. Otherwise, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!


Anti-Racism Reading Group #4: White Fragility

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group for health care practitioners in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.

For the third reading of the anti-racism reading group we focused on White Fragility. Our reading was the article White Fragility from the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy which you can download here. Supplementary materials were Dr. DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Rules of Engagement and this comedic White Fragility Workplace Training Video.

What is White Fragility? In Dr. DiAngelo’s words:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

Continue reading “Anti-Racism Reading Group #4: White Fragility”

Anti-Racism Reading Group #3: Perinatal Mortality

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group for health care practitioners in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read part one here and part two here.

For the third meeting of the anti-racism reading group, we focused on increased rates of perinatal death (i.e. death around the time of birth) for black women with this excellent piece of reporting by NPR and Propublica. NPR’s Code Switch team produced an excellent podcast on this same story which you can listen to here or read the write-up here.

This is an especially timely reading given Erica Garner’s recent death at age 27 from a heart attack just three months after giving birth. Erica was the daughter of Eric Garner who was murdered by the New York City Police. Since his death, she had risen up to be a prominent and effective activist against police violence.   Continue reading “Anti-Racism Reading Group #3: Perinatal Mortality”

Anti-Racism Reading Group #2: Theft of Black Wealth

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group for health practitioners in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read part one here. 

For the second meeting of the anti-racism reading group, we read part one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case For Reparations. In our first meeting, we discussed big-picture theory of race, so we followed that up by focusing in on particular racial project called redlining which had been a major contributor to both racial housing segregation and wealth inequality in America today. Continue reading “Anti-Racism Reading Group #2: Theft of Black Wealth”

Anti-Racism Reading Group #1: Racial Projects

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group for health practitioners in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. 

For the first meeting of the anti-racism reading group, we read a selection from Racial Formation In The United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. You can download a PDF of this selection here.

In this section, the authors describe race as existing in the interaction between 1) social structures which organize society by race and 2) the cultural representations and experiences of race. Racial projects is the term given to the mediators of this interaction. Continue reading “Anti-Racism Reading Group #1: Racial Projects”

Innovations In Primary Care #1: Introduction

As part of my family medicine residency training, I’m taking a month-long elective called Innovations in Primary Care. This month is an opportunity for primary care doctors from family medicine and internal medicine residency programs in Seattle to explore some of the different primary care models being trialed in the Seattle area and to use those experiences to fuel discussion about how primary care (and really, all medical care) can be improved in the United States.

Today was our first meeting, during which we gathered to collectively write an H&P for our current medical system. For those reading this who are not in medicine, the History and Physical or H&P is a semi-standardized note-writing structure that doctors use to describe the subjective and objective information about a patient’s health, assess why  the patient is experiencing illness, and describe the next steps we need to take (diagnostic tests and/or treatments) going forward. It’s a structured way of thinking about a patient that helps us be rigorous and methodical.

It was a gratifying process because each of the doctors at the table shared a passion for making our health care system better, but brought a different set of experiences and priorities to the conversation.

Some of the take-aways I had from this conversation are as follows (in no particular order):

  1. The insurance framework for paying for health care, while originally conceived to improve access to surgical services which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to most people, was quickly recognized by doctors as a way to extract larger fees for patient care. After all, when a third party (the insurance company) pays the bills, people tolerate much higher fees even if the end result is steady rise in out-of-pocket costs for everyone. Doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies have abused this system so greedily under the previous usual-and-customary payment system that increasingly rigid cost-containment measures have had to be implemented to control costs. We now live in a society where the average doctor makes $294,000 per year–more than 98.9% of Americans–while medical bills bankrupt patients and health insurance cost suppresses wage growth. Recognizing and holding ourselves accountable to how capitalism in medicine has brought out the worst in us is necessary before we can even begin to conceptualize a new system.
  2. The costs of most important and effective interventions to improve health, including primary care, are recurring and predictable costs that are best paid for through public health funding, NOT through health insurance. Access to clean water, nutritious food, safe housing, and preventive medical care is necessary for All People at All Times.
  3. America fails to invest in public welfare programs because of racism. The idea of the racialized-and-thus-undeserving Other benefiting from public welfare programs (e.g. the racist specter of the Welfare Queen that Reagan so infamously promoted) is fundamentally intolerable to White America. We are comfortable with 1 in 7 people in the United States facing food insecurity if it means we can prevent one person from buying steak with food stamps. There is no justice without racial justice.
  4. Many participants are needed to transform our medical care system into a true health care system. While there are only physicians in this particular group, the real work requires public health professionals, community health workers, housing experts, policy wonks, political activists, artists, chefs, personal trainers, behavioralists, and many others to both design an implement a better system.

I’m looking forward to the experiences and conversations this month will bring, and I hope to walk away with greater insight into how I can be a better advocate for effective and equitable health care in this country.

Critical Race Theory in Medicine: A Reading List

Inspired by this letter by Jennifer Tsai and Ann Crawford-Roberts, I’m working on putting together a reading list to jump start conversation about Critical Race Theory in medicine at my family medicine residency. The goal of such a conversation is to develop a more effective anti-racism praxis in our medical system and our lives more generally. I’ll update this list as I get more recommendations. Please let me know if you have recommendations to add.

Professor Adrienne Keene’s open-access course in Critical Race Theory at Brown: Introduction to Critical Race Theory 2017

Recommended by Michelle Munyikwa
Recommended by Jeremy Levenson

If you are having trouble accessing any of these articles, let me know!