BE Uncomfortable

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Sliding doors/front entrance to the Nelson Public Library, South Island, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

“BE uncomfortable. That’s how you learn!” was one of the final exhortations to our students by Pepe Sapolu Reweti at the conclusion of our”Empowering Healthy Communities” study abroad in New Zealand program this past summer. She was describing the fact that there are many Pakehas (‘white’/European descent New Zealanders) who do not personally know any Maori people, much less ever been on a Maori marae (‘meeting place’ similar to our U.S. Indian ‘reservation’ except that it is the ancestral home of the Maori iwi, or tribes), much much less ever have been in a Maori home. She pointed out that our students had all been on a marae (several, in fact) and had been inside a Maori community meeting house, and had shared ‘kai’ (a meal–several, in fact). That’s an honor and a privilege and something for us to learn from, to take back home–to apply in our own country, in our own daily lives. If the students learned nothing else from this study abroad experience, I hope they learned this.

I was reminded of Pepe’s words this past week as I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about his latest book Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his son about being a black man in the deeply scarred and racist modern day America. His talk was in the sold-out 2,900 seat McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center, as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures literary series. The interviewer asked Coates about his article “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic, and why he thought it had ‘gone viral’ and been so popular among white people. He replied that he thinks people like the fact he doesn’t sugar-coat things, that “It’s a sign of respect the way I talk directly about things.” And he added, “Reality is uncomfortable. Period.”

Looking around the packed auditorium in one of the whitest cities in America, I wondered how many of us white audience members were now wallowing in white guilt: white guilt which is itself a white self-indulgent privilege. How many of us white Seattleite audience members are willing to push past white guilt to do anything constructive to confront racism in our country, in our city, in our neighborhood, in our own homes? And what are we as health care educators doing to ‘teach meaningfully to’ the effects of personally-mediated and institutionalized racism?

“…as Americans we are so heavily invested in shame, avoidance, and denial that most of us have never experienced authentic, face-to-face dialogue about race at all.” (“To Whom It May Concern” by Jess Row in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Maxine King Cap, Fence Books 2015, p. 63.) In this same essay, Row states she once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers with the title When Race Breaks Out. “As if it’s like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed.” (p62.)

We need to allow ourselves–and our students–to be uncomfortable, to confront uncomfortable truths in order to learn any lessons that are worth learning.

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