“Let’s lay down some ground rules,” Professor Thomas Williams began. “This talk will be a little different from the other talks you’ve had, so please be willing to not only be vulnerable but also to take a step back and leave some space for the other people in the room.”
Conversations about race almost always create highly contested discourse about its impact, its validity, and even its existence. How Professor Williams would diplomatically navigate this topic while still encouraging healthy discourse was a concern we all had in our minds.
Immediately after his introduction, he launched us into what occasionally felt like a rapidfire interrogation, proposing questions that often garnered silence and stolen glances as we looked at one another, unsure of how to answer.
How should we define subgroups within populations? What makes them identifiable? And should they even be identifiable?
How should we designate the “default” population to measure vulnerable populations against? Is a default population even necessary?
Which social determinant plays the biggest role in determining and affecting the health outcomes people ultimately sustain: socioeconomic status, race, or even education?
After each response from a student, Professor Williams would simply nod, interjecting only to ask us to clarify our answers. We quickly realized that he wasn’t so much of a lecturer as he was a facilitator, carefully listening to our responses only to segue into the new questions they paved the way for. Rather than provide his own thoughts to the challenges he presented, he framed a free dialogue where we were driven to listen to one another’s opinions, learn from each other, and share new questions that came to mind.
But this format of discussion wasn’t always easy. It was established early on that race is a systemic issue, that racial health disparities are not in fact, an aggregate of individual isolated experiences, but rather a trend across institutions that create pervasive harmful results on specific marginalized populations.
So when Professor Williams called upon us to find our personal solutions that addressed the wide-encompassing subject of racial health disparities, we found ourselves stuck between sharing idealistic visions of a utopian society and staying realistic about the scope of power and impact we wield as mere individuals.
Huang Fellow Michelle Kim acknowledged that while she wished researchers, particularly those with work pertaining to racial health disparities, could be better advocates for their work, she understood that public opinion is more often influenced by trends and norms than by scientists. Citing the widely successful marketing of breast cancer research that has secured millions in funding as opposed to less glamorized research with equal need but much less backing, Michelle conceded that scientists often can’t be as outspoken as she wished they could be, because they, too, have their own priorities, like securing grants that sustain their research.
As our discussion came to a close, I thought back to its beginning—how surprisingly, Professor Williams took the time to ask the Huang Fellows for our personal involvements and passions on campus as opposed to jumping right into his workshop.
Just as race or class or any other demographical factor’s influence on health outcomes can only begin to be recognized when we dedicate the time to try to empathize with one another, Professor Williams created a conversational space where we could and needed to interact with each other to understand our unique perceptions regarding race. It was with his initial ground rules that he framed an exchange of ideas where we could all find a common ground despite having such distinct and personalized backgrounds.
Rather than leaving inspired to find the optimal fix to health disparities, I left feeling no more sure about where to even begin addressing the topic. Huang Fellow Jason Zhang maintained that though the talk helped him think critically about how to support his opinions regarding health disparities, our cohort’s discussion worked mainly to reinforce these ideas as opposed to forge new conclusions.
But maybe that was the beauty of Professor Williams’ seminar. Race may be a social construct, but how every single member of our society interacts with and contributes to this concept solidifies its reality. How we can even begin to deconstruct the complexity behind health disparities must first begin with understanding and reflecting upon individualized experiences—whether our own, or those of others living within our shared society—within a larger institutional sphere. Perhaps the first step in tackling racial health disparities is not just to act as a thinktank—brainstorming solutions only feasible in a perfect world—but rather to actively listen to the considerations of others and foster empathy for experiences outside of our own.
Professor Williams’ intention was not to teach us what the Center for Disease Control-approved definition for health disparities was and not to feed us the answers to pressing issues. Rather, it was to to provoke and stimulate a discourse that forced us to reflect on how health disparities permeate our everyday existence and the world around us in which we live.
Is the poor care a pregnant black woman encounters at a teaching hospital a result of implicit discrimination and disregard for her concerns or is it simply a product of the culture at an institution where efficiency is key?
How is the best way to prioritize racial health disparities on our political agenda?
These were just a few of the questions posed to promote critical thinking rather than be completely or comprehensively answered.
But on that summer June afternoon, with these possibilities on our minds and our thoughts cognizant of how every characteristic of an individual’s life can shape the quality of the care they receive, maybe that was enough for a start.
Felicia hopes to study Global Health and Sociology. She is especially interested in the relationship between demographics and health outcomes.