During her time as a medical student, Camara Phyllis Jones went out to a late dinner with some friends after a long day of studying. As they began eating inside the restaurant together, Jones looked up and noticed the “open” sign across the room. Although seemingly simple, this sign sparked a revelation within her about the dual nature of racism.
Jones, a physician, epidemiologist, and senior fellow at the Morehouse School of Medicine, shared this realization with Boston College students at a virtual event on Tuesday, through a story she has titled “Dual Reality: A Restaurant Saga.”
“Racism structures open/closed signs in our society,” Jones said. “Racism structures, if you will, a dual reality. And for those who are sitting inside the restaurant at the table of opportunity eating, and they look up and they see a sign that says ‘open,’ they don’t even recognize that there’s a two-sided sign going on because it is difficult for any of us to recognize a system of inequity that privileges us.”
The BC Forum on Racial Justice in America hosted the event, titled “Tools for Becoming a Racial Justice Warrior,” which featured Jones’ step-by-step guidance as to how BC students can combat racism.
Jones discussed her 2016 National Campaign Against Racism, which she launched as president of the American Public Health Association. She said the three main tasks of the campaign were naming racism, asking “how is racism operating here?,” and strategizing a plan of action.
Jones then began outlining the first task of her campaign—naming racism—by defining the term. She explained racism’s dual nature and identified four key messages about racism: Racism exists, racism is a system, racism saps the strength of the whole society, and people can act to dismantle racism.
She also said that racism unfairly disadvantages certain individuals while unfairly advantaging others. This phenomenon manifests itself as white privilege.
“What I say now is if you feel uncomfortable, I encourage you to lean into that discomfort, because I have come to recognize that for each of us the edge of our comfort is actually our growing edge,” Jones said.
Jones later addressed how a white person can denounce racism and white supremacy.
“If you are living as white in this country you do have white-skin privilege,” Jones said. “Don’t try to deny it—use it. I could tell stories for six hours, six days, six weeks. And you, with a word out of your white-appearing self, could do more anti-racism than I could do in six weeks of storytelling.”
There are three levels of racism, according to Jones: institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized.
She told the story of a gardener who places red flower seeds in good soil and pink flower seeds in poor soil. This separation into two types of soil demonstrates the institutionalization of racism, the gardener’s choice to favor red flowers for flourishing and keep pink flowers separate symbolizes personally mediated racism, and the pink flowers feeling bad about themselves because they believe the red ones to be superior is internalized racism.
“If we want to set things right in the garden, we must at least address the structural racism,” Jones said. “And when we do, all the other levels may take care of themselves.”
Jones also argued that racism is the root cause of persistent racial health disparities in the United States.
“Racism is still here,” Jones said. “It’s alive and well, and it has different flavors across the country, and it has different flavors in the medical and health care sector over time. The disparities have not changed.”
Jones challenged the audience members to identify what allows them to be complicit with racist actions and how to combat them. She emphasized that racism is something that can be dealt with.
“Racism is not a cloud or a miasma that we can’t get a handle on,” Jones said. “It is a system with identifiable and addressable mechanisms in our structures, policies, practices, norms, and values, which are actually different elements of decision-making.”
Jones concluded by highlighting the importance of naming racism and taking collective action to dismantle it.
“We need to recognize that action is power, and especially that collective action is power,” Jones said.
Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Editor