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Race (In)Sights

August 29, 2018

By Emily Chávez, Associate Director, Duke Center for Multicultural Affairs

Race: that ubiquitous element in society that registers in both our conscious and unconscious minds. Do we see race? Of course we do—though we may pretend not to. Can we look beyond it? Many, perhaps most of us, try. But the thing with race is that to deal with it honestly we must both see and not see it—to hold a dialectical truth. Race tells a story, and the story it tells is real. Yet, it never tells the full story.

How does the existence of race shape us? In some ways, race seems to play a role in almost everything: where we live, who we hang out with, who we date or marry, how we relate to our coworkers. Additionally, race is often—but not always—related to culture. But race is not only about difference; in our institutions and economic, political and social systems, it remains linked to power, where whiteness is the most systemically privileged and blackness is the least systemically privileged. This is racism, and racism is pervasive. We should not minimize the effects of racism—not if we want to try to get beyond them. Yet we must also see racism in the complex and multidimensional context that is our society. Other identity factors besides race also play a role in what privileges we have, including class, gender, legal status, sexual orientation, gender expression, (dis)ability status, and religion. The effects of racism and the existence of racial disparities are all around us. We see them in housing, education, the criminal justice system, and healthcare, just to name a few arenas.

So how can healthcare providers serve all patients better? How can healthcare providers be aware of the existence of race and racism while striving to give all patients the best care possible? Here are two things you can do right now:

Validate the experiences of patients.

One of the most simple and destructive ways in which racism persists is through the invalidation of experiences of people of color. You were pulled over for driving while black? Some will say, no, race had nothing to do with it. Your Latino child was punished more severely than a white student would have been for disrupting the class? Some will again say, no, race had nothing to do with it. It is well documented that people of color experience disparities in treatment. And people of color also receive invalidating messages all the time: “it’s not about race.” Some things are about race, and until we acknowledge that, we can’t change them.

Embrace discomfort.

Challenging our assumptions, attempting to walk in others’ shoes that we’ve never walked in before, and uncovering biases are not easy tasks. To see the racial structure in which we live—without being able to simply change it–and to see the ways in which we have been privileged or marginalized simply because of who we are is profound. To question ourselves and the ways that we understand things to work is not comfortable. But growth requires discomfort. Learning requires discomfort. And on the other side of discomfort there is new understanding, deeper empathy for self and others, and possibilities for connection across all kinds of difference.


Emily Chavez serves as an instructor for the Duke Integrative Medicine Cultural Competency for Health Professionals program. If you would like to learn more about the Cultural Competency for Health Professionals program, visit the Duke Integrative Medicine website. Register before September 7, 2018 to receive a 10% early registration discount.

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