The Travelator of Racism

indexA few blog posts ago I wrote about the use of metaphor in health policy, focusing on the Cliff of Health analogy developed by Dr. Camara Jones. (See “Falling off the Funding Cliff of Good Health”). Dr. Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist who until recently was Research Director on Social Determinants of Health and Equity at the CDC in Atlanta. She resigned from that position in December to become President Elect of the American Public Health Association. She also IMG_3541teaches at the Morehouse School of Medicine. This photograph, which I took on Friday this week, shows Dr. Jones on the right with my colleague and epidemiologist Dr. Wendy Barrington.

Dr. Camara Jones was in Seattle to consult with the University of Washington School of Medicine on diversity issues. She gave a riveting (and standing room only) Grand Rounds talk “Achieving Health Equity: Naming, Measuring, and Addressing Racism and Other Systems of Structured Inequity.” And on Friday she talked with School of Nursing students, faculty, and staff about these same issues. In person she is warm, engaging, funny, and a gifted storyteller. As she says, she uses stories–allegories (which are really extended metaphors with a ‘lesson’)–to distill and clarify complex public health concepts and ‘difficult to discuss’ topics like racism. I highly recommend watching her recent (July 10, 2014) TEDxEmory videotaped talk “Allegories on Race and Racism,” in which she tells four stories: 1) Japanese Lanterns: Colored Perceptions, 2) Dual Reality: A Restaurant Sign, 3) Levels of Racism: A Gardner’s Tale, and 4) Life on a Conveyor Belt: Moving to Action. Conveyor belt, or moving walkway, is also called ‘travelator’ by those clever Brits.

The conveyor belt allegory is one of her most recent, and as far as I can tell she has not yet included it in any of her published articles. Dr. Jones said she has extended the ‘conveyor belt of racism’ analogy from the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Tatum (1997). Tatum writes about what it means to be antiracist:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others” (pp 11-12).

It is highly telling that many of the online quotes of this passage from Tatum’s book conveniently delete both sentences that include ‘White supremacist,’ as if  it is ‘that which cannot be spoken.’ Camara Jones extends the conveyor belt/travelator of racism allegory by pointing out there are three stages of anti-racist action: 1) name it–look for and point out the racism inherent in the conveyor belt; 2) ask ‘how is racism operating here?’–not only walk backwards on the conveyor belt, but seek out the mechanisms and the history behind the building of the conveyor belt; and 3) organize and strategize to act with others who are trying to dismantle the mechanism behind the conveyor belt–to stop it. In her Grand Rounds speech, Dr. Jones pointed out that we have to talk about and understand history, we have to ask ‘how did this problem get to be this way?’ “Often knowing and uncovering the history behind how we got this problem can give us ideas of how to address it.”

I continually struggle to find ways to include meaningful course content and discussions about racism and health in the community health nursing and health politics and policy courses I teach, as well as in my narrative medicine/health humanities courses. Using the allegories on racism developed by Dr. Camara Jones has been among the most effective teaching tools.

If you haven’t done this already, try taking the Implicit Association test on race, available online through Harvard University. Make sure you are well-rested and feeling both left-right hand coordinated and willing to have your world rocked before taking this test!

 

2 thoughts on “The Travelator of Racism

  1. As you know, the school of medicine, is in the midst of curriculum renewal. Her thoughts and stories were apt, and brought me sadly to my knees. As the chair of a key committee, we did not get what we need, what I believe all our students need, reinforced by her comments that resonate with my life going back to life in the south in the 1960s. How do we carry on, with such tiny changes that they are barely visible? We should be further. I am trying to combine and integrate my sadness, with her drive, with feeling like what I have done in this latest round is too little, with trying to understand why. This post …well thank you. Onward, I suppose. Schools of Medicine are maybe where I met my match.

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    1. Thanks for this important perspective Sharon. I had been picking up on some of this from other School of Medicine folks. I found it fascinating (paying attention to language as you know I am prone to do) how many people at these UW forums used ‘diversity’ and ‘disparities’ and ‘social determinants of health’ when they really meant ‘racism.’ As she said in her Grand Rounds talk “Our goal is to expand the conversation’ and you have helped expand that conversation so don’t give up!

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