Photo of Medical Racism: The Ripple Effect  in Black and Indigenous Communities

Medical Racism: The Ripple Effect in Black and Indigenous Communities

Chinyere Amobi for NSTMF
October 1, 2021
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Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism have brought increased attention to how racism impacts all aspects of society. From who has access to quality health care to how you’re treated once you reach a health care setting, racism has led to entrenched health disparities that have plagued this nation since its founding. As more conversations are held to discuss what STEM leaders can do to alleviate and prevent the burden of persistent health disparities in the U.S., the NSTMF seeks to share these conversations with STEM students and leaders through its STEM Spotlight series, in the hopes of providing inspiring models for the health and science leaders of tomorrow. 

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health, activist Johnnie Jae, journalist, speaker, and founder of a Tribe Called Geek, and Phill Wilson, vice-chair for the Foundation for the AIDS Monument in West Hollywood, and a trustee for amfAR have all made their mark in their respective STEM fields by using their talents to bring attention to the inequities facing their communities. The group came together to discuss healthcare disparities along racial and ethnic lines, what governments and communities can do to help, and how students can get involved. 

Motivated by their own experiences in the medical system and imperatives within their communities, all three individuals have forged paths that allow them to blend their work in STEM with activism.

For Jae, the need to see more Indigenous representation in STEM and pop culture was a major driving force, but also the persistent health disparities she saw in her community. “The autoimmune disorders that we face in Indian Country can often be tied back to the forced removal of Indigenous people from their traditional homelands, their food sources, and a lot of environmental factors,” said Jae.

Dr. Bourassa echoed Jae’s sentiments, citing her Indigenous family’s history of chronic disease and trauma as her first glimpse into an unequal health system in Canada. The two share a health history of lupus, an autoimmune disease that disproportionately affects women of color. Both shared personal stories of medical neglect, racism, and mistreatment in health care settings, where their concerns were often ignored.

For Wilson, the founder of the Black AIDS Institute and previously the AIDS coordinator for the City of Los Angeles, the director of policy and planning for APLA, and co-founder for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was his major induction into the world of advocacy, science, and activism. “We realized early on in the gay community that the only way we were going to survive was to mobilize and to become engaged,” said Wilson. “Many of us began to throw ourselves into understanding the science to save our lives.” This has taken the form of policy work, direct service, research, and the dissemination of information to communities. “You have to be a permanent student, a permanent looker, and a permanent adventurer,” said Wilson.  

All three would go on to craft diverse careers that spark awareness and direct action on the health disparities affecting their communities. Dr. Bourassa explained the importance of community-based research and the organization’s creation of a cultural safety, research, evaluation, and training lab in response to the limited education clinicians and physicians receive on Indigenous and BIPOC issues. “We’re going to train clinicians and physicians in terms of decolonization, systemic racism, white privilege – all of the very difficult issues that need to be addressed,” said Dr. Bourassa. She and her colleagues also partnered with an organization to develop books that will prime Indigenous children for the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available for their age group.

Jae marveled out how involved Native people have been with A Tribe Called Geek. “We’ve always been artists, storytellers, and scientists, but that’s not the way we’ve been portrayed in history or pop culture,” said Jae. “I’m a firm believer that the way we are portrayed, the way we are viewed, impacts the way we are treated and the way we view and value ourselves.”

Wilson connected his coalition work in HIV/AIDS to the current fight against COVID-19. “Figuring out how we can work together, developing inclusive solutions is critically important,” Wilson said. “It’s also important to understand that diseases have no respect of person. If we bring our very cultural experiences to a problem, we can more effectively solve that problem.”

Among the three, there is a shared belief that the pandemic has the potential to shift the conversation around racism’s impact on health disparities. “COVID-19 did exacerbate racism and discrimination for sure, but I think it also created an opportunity particularly for non-Indigenous people and allies to really understand what Indigenous people and BIPOC have really been living through for generations,” said Dr. Bourassa. “They want to be good allies, so they’re starting to talk about the impacts of colonization.” 

Wilson pointed out that persistent disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths despite the arrival of the vaccine highlighted the need for a better understanding of how to reach underserved communities. “We have strategies and tactics that will reduce the risks and transmission of COVID-19, but in many communities, we don’t have proper utilization or access,” Wilson said. “That speaks to the fact that it’s not just about the medicine. It’s not just about the science. The messenger matters, access matters, utilization matters, and cultural humility matters.”

Students from all STEM fields can draw both wisdom and instruction from the paths these three leaders shared. From advice on how to be a more effective ally to how to make sure your current and future work is in service of racial equity, the group shared useful gems for a career filled with passion and purpose. 

“I believe that if you’re going to attempt to be an ally and be of service to communities that are not of your own, you have to understand that you may have an unconscious bias,” said Wilson. “By understanding that I think it’ll be easier for you to have a more open mind and become more effective, because the community that you serve can be tremendous educators.”

Dr. Bourassa encouraged students to be direct about what they expect when seeking out opportunities. “Be explicit about the fact that you want to learn about systemic racism, implicit bias, and white privilege as paramount issues that have to be addressed.”

 Jae reminded students that they may not always be the best person to speak about an issue, or the most qualified. “It’s important to understand that the most meaningful help that you can do for communities that are working for justice is to elevate their voice and to allow them the power to tell their own stories and reclaim their own narratives. That’s something that has been really taken from all of us.” 

“You know the old cliche proverb: if not now, when? And if not me, who?” said Wilson. “We really do have the tools to address the challenges that are before our society and our planet. The challenge is whether or not we have the will and the courage to use those tools effectively, inclusively, and universally, with compassion, passion, and hope.”



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First drawing will be for the headphones, second and third drawings will be for a NSTMF swag bundle, including a water bottle, tote bag, and sweater. Open to US residents 18 and older. Giveaway closes on Sunday, 10/24/21 at 11:59pm EST. Winners will be notified by Friday, 10/29/21 via email. One entry per person.