Treating Racism Like We Treat Cancer

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 5:02am
Photo by Sarah Bell

Treating Racism Like We Treat Cancer

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

—Audre Lorde, "Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches"

What would happen if we banded together to fight the disease of racism as we do cancer? As an African-American woman who is a two-time breast cancer survivor, I often ponder this question.

I celebrated over the weekend when I heard that the University of Missouri at Columbia football team announced that they were boycotting games and practices until President Tim Wolfe resigns. I am encouraged not only because I appreciate seeing young Black students taking a stand against injustice, but also because I saw more than just Black students banding together. The picture of the Mizzou football team visually shows players and coaches of all races, young and older men banded together arm and arm.

What warms my soul is that they all seem to understand that they are in this together and they are addressing the problem. The problem is racism.

Racism is a social disease that has psychological and health consequences. The homicide rate of African Americans is 12 times higher than the death rate for all people in developing countries. African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians have higher death rates and elevated risk of diseases such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as compared Whites. Racism is as smart as it is ignorant. It adapts, and it is elusive. There is no cure for racism nor a billion dollar campaign to fund research.

While racism disproportionately affects people of color, the disease rampantly impacts the affective psychological health of White people. Lack of empathy for the experiences of others, and feelings of guilt and fear, plague White people when considering racism. Dissonant feelings about the “unjust, hierarchical system of societal racism” can produce a wide range of defensive reactions. These reactions interrupt productive dialogue that could lead to change because those with privileged identities and in powerful positions respond defensively as they explore the realities of racism. The fear and the entitlement disrupt their ability to listen responsively and interfere with their willingness to share power.

(Nate Silver / FiveThirtyEight.)

The hunger strike of Jonathan L. Butler connects the struggles with racism to our humanity. Racism is dehumanizing and it depletes what nourishes us. This disease disempowers individuals and extinguishes their ability to live without the negative shadow of stigma associated with a long history of hate and racial injustice in this country.

I wonder what we can learn from the way we fight cancer that will teach us how to survive racism.

As a cancer-survivor, I have learned a lot about how to fight this disease. I am fighting a disease that is publically acknowledged as an illness and that is not directly my fault. I am given sympathy for it. There is an entire month dedicated to honoring survivors as heroes and sheroes. I am blessed with excellent health care and insurance. My treatments for the disease include preventative efforts (healthy eating, exercise, supplements) coupled with medications (hormonal suppressants and chemotherapy). One single chemotherapy treatment can cost over $30,000 and every one of my infusions is covered by insurance. I am reassured that there are thousands of researchers looking for ways to combat this disease. I am assured that we will find a cure.

Racism is not acknowledged as a problem that impacts the American life beyond the individual. We do not organize and fight this disease that partners with just about every social problem we have in this country. We have trouble generating the empathy for how it breaks down the essence of our being and limits our free expression, particularly for people of color and peripherally for White people. As an individual, I am curiously taxed for overcoming the obstacles racism places in my path. As a middle-class African American, I am seemingly seen as "one of the ones who made it out" from under the effects of racism. The tax includes frantically trying to help other individuals "make it out" by extending myself outside of my limits. There is not a hopeful ethos associated with the disease of racism. In fact, we seem to complacently accept that it will always be with us and that there is no cure.

I applaud head coach Gary Pinkel and the Mizzou athletic department’s stance to support students in the right to “tackle these challenging issues.” Listening to those who experience racism, standing with them in support, and using personal and collective power to change the system actively fights the disease. Dismantling a racist system requires shifts in power.

I wonder what would happen if we all started to alter our minds and acknowledge racism as a disease.

Would we stop being surprised by racism and acknowledge the ordinariness of this atrocious disease? Would we acknowledge its existence as a disease and start regular treatment to manage it?

Maybe fighting racism like a disease looks like what the Mizzou football players and coaches are doing on this day. I wonder how our homes, our communities, our universities, and our society might change if we took collective action to face down this pervasive disease.

Would we start putting federal and state funding toward research that helps us to understand and deconstruct unconscious bias? Would we start nationwide programs that helps to traverse difficult dialogues needed to identify strategies for addressing inequities? Would we start handing out ribbons for being racism survivors?


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Sherry K. Watt

is an Associate Professor of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa. She is an author and the editor of the book, Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations. Her research on privileged identity exploration expands the understanding of the various ways in which people react to difficult dialogue related to social issues. She is a facilitator and has almost 20 years of experience in designing and leading educational experiences that involve strategies to engage participants in dialogue that is meaningful, passionate, and self-awakening.

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Dear Sherry,

I have meant to write you a Thank you note for some days. Few people in my life have helped me grow more than you. This piece was really interesting and thought provoking.

The idea of a racism survivors campaign seems really interesting. The domestic violence purple ribbon campaign makes domestic violence, a very stealthy form of violence visible and concrete. It is a small step but a very important one. Oooh this is so good! I am already thinking about ways that maybe I could apply this.

Thinking of you,

Amy, I agree a racism survivor campaign is exactly what we need! We need to take racism and put it in another text so that others understand that Racism is not just a thing that just one single race struggles with. By showing people this viewpoint, it may make things more clearly for people like me. Before I even read this article, I called Sherry wondering why I still continue to feel this gut feeling that when I come in to work at 6 am to do my homework (it is very quiet, and I can use 2 computer screens to get more work done), I feel like people are thinking that I am up to no good. So I watch every little thing that I do so that people don't get the wrong idea. I feel like I have to constantly justify myself for no good reason because of what has been engraved in me in a way. I am ready to acknowledge this disease and help this generation understand everyone's feelings and perspective about racism!

This is a great idea. Racism is disease that has ravaged our country & so many others far too long. I will try to do my part to end it.

Dear Sherry,
I'm reminded of the words to a song "silence like a cancer grows". Racism is a cancer that grows when we are silent. We have support groups for so many other survivors, whether it be of a disease or of an abuse; and we should for survivors of inequality and injustice.
Thank you.

I wanted to make the point that silence is the unconscious bias that Ms. Watt discusses in the article, and that silence is what makes racism grow. Yes, we should research this and and have the conversations that are difficult but necessary for the benefit of everyone's well being.

I read your post with enthusiasm; thank you for sharing. I am a Philadelphia-based photographer who just wrapped a photo essay entitled Racism Is A Sickness. In this project I argue that racism is akin to a deadly infectious virus. People manifest symptoms in very different ways and that we need a coordinated, large scale approach to containment, and healing, like we would with Ebola or bird flu. I photographed and interviewed 14 subjects. I maintain that we need to treat racism as the public health emergency that it is. Would love to chat with you further about how our ideas and proposed approaches intersect. And thanks again for your thoughtful piece.

"Racism is as smart as it is ignorant. It adapts, and it is elusive. There is no cure for racism nor a billion dollar campaign to fund research."

Truer words have never been spoken. Your insight and recognition of racism as a horrible disease is exactly how our society must address racism if we are ever to regain our health and dignity as a society. Thank you for your inspiring thoughts and words.

12 step program for racism? I too celebrated the Missouri football team - they were also standing up for our health - spiritual, mental, physical and environmental. Racism and the tolerance of bias is a sickness, a toxic way of thinking that breaks people down and I agree that everyone is hurt by it. I appreciate the idea of finding a cure, teaching prevention and healthy habits, (and we can only wish there was surgery or chemotherapy for racism). Another health analogy may be addiction and a twelve step program where people acknowledge the destructive power of the disease of racism that has damaged their lives , then take the steps to look at themselves, look higher, make amends and commit to living differently supporting others recovering from the addictions of racism and anger.

I understand the sentiment of your concerns, but I wonder about the way this president was forced from his job. All of the incidents seemed to be off campus or out of his authority. Why was he the target?is it possible because he was white and male and was a symbol? Sometimes our reaction to intolerance is ...intolerance. Thanks for the space to reflect

Dear Sherry, What a fantastic post. I forwarded it widely. Naming the realities of racism, the casualties and stress related physical and emotional impact, white guilt, white privilege and all the social and cultural variables that keep racism in place is all so well written and articulated. We need so much more than pink ribbons to address breast cancer - we need education around optimal nutrition, health and medical care that is not biased by evidence based. So too with racism, we need clear information, community and action. Props to the STUDENTS at Univ of Missouri. Agreed. Thank you for taking a stand. Taking ACTION!!

Dear Krista, Thank you for always bringing such thoughtful, respected and educated guests to your blog and podcast. Yours has long been a favorite of mine. Appreciation. Respect

I think treating racism like cancer misses the diagnosis. It has to be seen as a belief system like religion, with which we try in vain to give meaning to our lives. Racism can't be cured unless we recognize it is a way we try to fill to the void.

Racism cannot be a disease for as you said, "I am fighting a disease that is publicly acknowledged as an illness and that is not directly my fault." Racism, in general exists without any "single" fault, but every racist action, or symptom of racism, has an individual at fault who knew better. Therefore, Racism as people experience it cannot be thought of as a disease, especially since that would remove culpability for those who commit racist acts.

Now, should our nation approach racism like a disease, such as cancer? Absolutely. The human cost is enormous, and I am not talking finance, although racism is expensive, the cost comes in suffering, lost opportunity, minds ruined by hate, dreams corrupted by superiority and inferiority. The list is voluminous. Yes, we need to excise racism like we would a tumor, and cut it out of the nation's body with a careful hand and an eye toward preserving what is not diseased.

Thank you for this powerful post, Sherry. I was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer earlier this fall, and I have thought often since then of the ways racism is like a cancer in our society. As a part of that, I also hope that our societal response to racism is much MORE effective, systemic, and healing than our societal response to cancer. While it is true that cancer mobilizes huge amounts of resources and sympathy, the U.S. hasn't improved many of the life style and environmental factors that we know contribute to cancer. As two examples, increases in pesticide use and obesity, have contributed to increases in cancer rates.
We spend large amounts of resources on technical solutions to treat cancer. This has helped some of us with cancer live longer, but there isn't yet a technical solution to the kind of cancer I have. As I'm in the midst of cancer treatment systems, I keep being reminded of how we try to technically kill the problem of cancer, often overlooking what would feel healing to the individuals and communities most impacted by cancer.
I pray that our societal response to racism can mobilize just as many resources and commitment to preventing and curing that disease as we do for cancer--while we also learn from what is and isn't working with cancer, so we are:
Following the lead of communities of color and what healing looks like for them, not just imposing abstract, academic visions of a cure upon them. As someone currently being treated for cancer, I'm grateful for the skillful medical treatment, and also hunger for having other resources for healing (spiritual, community, diet, etc.) recognized and integrated as a part of that healing process. I hope we can be more holistic and respectful in healing racism than we tend to be with cancer.
Learning from cancer prevention that has worked, like reducing lung cancer by reducing smoking, through public policy, direct challenges with tobacco companies, marketing, etc. I'd love to see a similar combination of multiple, coordinated methods to measurably reduce racism and its impacts in particular parts of our society, such as racial equity in criminal justice systems, education, health, etc.

So I say "yes!" to the same level of response to racism as cancer, while believing we can do even better in the effectiveness and systemic impact of that response.

This is a wonderful piece. Taking the metaphor further, I am not sure there is a cure for racism. Meaning, I don't think we can rid ourselves of the thoughts and behaviors or systems and policies anytime soon. We can only recognize a relapse and learn from it each time. As a cisgender heterosexual male, I do not question if I am or am not sexist. I am. So I start from the premise of male privilege and I ask, "How am I sexist?" Sexism and racism are in our blood. They are hereditary diseases rooted in male supremacy and white supremacy. The smartest approach I've seen that may address this is Dr. Robin DiAngelo's work on White Fragility. One treatment is a good dose of awareness.

In a weekly podcast I listen to I heard Keli Goff reference a bad joke to make a salient point: #BlackLinebackersMatter. Her point was that the Mizzou football team threatened economic systems and made change. Without a threat to the universities purse the president might still be at his desk. She urged concentrations of Black wealth and power to leverage systems that depend on Black folk such as the NFL or NBA. Can you see an NBA super PAC? This idea struck me as a highly concentrated form of boycotting. Instead of poor riders refusing to ride a bus, high profile athletes refuse to step on the field or court. This treatment is quite painful to the pocket book. Ouch. Part of the cure is in the purse.

Sherry, thank God you are a cancer survivor. What I gleaned from this article is that, we as humans are trying to understand the human heart, the seat of our emotions. You are cured of cancer that means it is curable. I don't think that racism is curable by any drug or doing a biopsy of the heart to find out a defective part of heart that might cause someone to be racist. This is such an important topic, therefore in other to have some understanding, a definition might be helpful. As per Webster's Dictionary, racism is "the notion that one's own ethnic stock is superior." African Americans were once classified as not fully human. How long ago was that? Was there any institution or system in U. S. that was free of racism? During slavery and the era of Jim Crow, how different were the White churches? Eugenics was used to selectively bred "superior" people to improve humanity's genetic composition. Scientists that were involved in this evil enterprise, assumed that in time, the "inferior" people will be eliminated. In my opinion, the majority of whites will always feel superior and see themselves as people endowed with divine right to rule. Eugenics might be a thing of the past, but I'm doubtful if racism will be a thing of the past. It is good to have an on going civil conversation, town house meeting, dialogue, and sometimes protest. In my opinion, if there is no transformation of the heart, it will make no difference. Therefore, transformation of the human heart is beyond any human institution, it has to come from above!

My wife is a two-time cancer survivor and agrees completely...if our society made a real effort to eradicate racism we would have made significant progress since the 1960s. Instead we are confronted daily with its proponents masquerading as political leaders. Too many people try to redirect conversations about race by crying about political correctness and how this inhibits their freedom of speech. The current debate over accepting refugees reflects how deep-seated are our fears of "the other" reflected primarily in rejecting people of color.

Racism is a "right to life" issue just as much, if not moreso, as abortion. Until we confront the violent nature of our culture and the racism feeding it, we will never truly live in a free democracy. Thank you Sherry for your insight!

Hi Sherry, thanks for your post. I'm intrigued by the comparison because of the way the 12 steps have utilized a disease-model effectively for almost 100 years. When viewing a problem as a disease, the trajectory for healing is radically altered, and I would argue for the better. Blessings and peace, Travis