#RoleModel #BlackHistoryMonth #DiversityJC

February was #BlackHistoryMonth, and along this month we posted some #RoleModels in our Twitter account. ICYMI, we’ve put them all together in this blogpost!

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Stiff Upper Lip, Suck it up, Carry on.

Something that’s recurred for me after our last #DiversityJC discussion about the Orlando shootings as well as other diversity related issues is a question I think about as a relatively quiet/closed off person (and a cis white heterosexual male).

And that is the question of whether white culture is one of silence around, well, almost anything.

It’s rather gauche to discuss money openly, careers, the Catholic Church clergy abuses, the looking the other way on so many things. Depression? Don’t talk about it, you’ll hurt your career & “normal” life.

Diversity? Nope, can’t talk about it directly but we can try to be inclusive– or some of us can, at least (I don’t know if I count myself in that number or not…I hope so, but still really learning). Though it may be that the language to discuss whiteness is simply lacking because it’s a new discussion most of us aren’t used to having.

Change takes time. This American Life had a segment about how there are people that know what the better or right thing to do is, but they don’t actually do it because, well culture gets in the way. In the episode, it’s Wilt Chamberlain giving up his underhanded free throws even though it made him better and he scored more points. But he thought it looked silly.

Chamberlain had a high threshold to change his method, to ignore the culture around him, even if adopting a different method would make him better in his social context.

Similarly, white culture and institutions probably also fail to adopt inclusivity because of the rest of the culture out there.

I wonder if the slow opening up about various topics is also a high bar to clear. I’ve been told over and over (by mostly white people in the culture I’m a part of in the United States) that sensitive topics are off limits in the work place. Politics, religion, and yes, even diversity fall into that category. Talking about it at work, especially, is simply frowned upon and so a lot of us struggle with expressing ourselves in all sorts of ways. It’s considered OK simply to treat each other professionally/with some respect (though even this bar is not cleared in many cases).

It’s a controversial decision I made to be open about my mental health and trials and tribulations with anxiety/depression. People say it’s bold, even, because not many people do it for fear of admitting humanity will limit my career prospects. That may be right.

Maybe other cultures have similar principles of silence around some issues. I don’t really know (one example might be the Orlando shooter and his apparent status as a closeted gay person).

Coming out publicly is a fairly big deal, even in 2016. And I wonder if part of what keeps people from being who they are is the preferred culture of silence is in part to blame (yes, I know, there’s also the strong “you’re different and therefore not acceptable” thing too). I wonder if the silence prevents finding support. Articulating what I think is hard– it takes a lot to get me to tell someone things that are deep-seated in me (I also know there are all too many men out there who have no problem spewing invective against women and URMs, especially on the internet).

Expressing genuine feeling is hard. It’s simply not encouraged in white culture, at least not for me very often. There has to be a remove, a distance. A computer screen can work. But even here, it feels like my natural impulse is to dance around a core feeling, not really expressing anything, at all.

I know I can be empathetic/sensitive…but only with those I’ve really gotten to know well. And maybe that’s OK, but even then, I tend to keep things in.

None of this is too take away from the obstacles URMs face, but it’s to ask if it might be better if white men, specifically, could be more open about more topics, even in the workplace. Or does maintaining our seemingly cold and uncaring government and business institutions require silence and distance from those they are impacting?

Could things be different?

Ian Street (@IHStreet)

2016 #DiversityJC poll

Dear friends,

We know that our schedules are busy and change constantly. So we want to hear from you what day of the week and what time would be best for our #DiversityJC next year. We will probably do it once a month instead of the usual bi-weekly journal club. In the meantime, we want to publish more posts about diversity and have guests posts. This is your space, we want you to use it as well. Please, vote in our polls, help to spread the word around Twitter, and see you in 2016!

The first anti-vaxxers were in… 1721??

Dear Diversity Journal Club,


As we await the recap of our discussion on Monday 9 February about privilege and vaccines refusal, I wanted to post the following email from a dear friend who studying the history of medicine.

Which, by the way, is an insanely interesting field. You should ask Sonic about it. She’s on twitter (@SonicWoytonik).

In any case, I emailed her about potential historical research into vaccines and vaccine refusal, given our conversation. Her response:

So, here are some thoughts. I’m not sure this is exactly up the alley of your group, but I think at the very least you will find this interesting. The first anti-vaxxers in North American history are on the record from 1721, even before vaccination existed (they were protesting inoculation, vaccination’s undeniably more dangerous grandparent). In many ways the 1721 episode is extremely relevant today: it involved physicians, religious leaders, and racial/class diversity. Historians have understood the pro-vaxxers to be folks who simultaneously believed in observational science (“Oh look, people who have smallpox never get it again, how about that…”) and divine intervention (i.e. inoculation is a gift from God). The anti-vaxxers were mostly rich white men who thought their authority to dictate public health was being undermined by a bunch of slaves and clergy. People were beaten in the streets, inoculation was banned, and everyone continued to get smallpox until Edward Jenner burst on the scene in the 1790s with…a vaccination! Vaccination remained controversial until the mid-1800s, when it became mandatory in many countries and totally replaced inoculation as a form of building immunity.

The second article I’m attaching here is much more recent and has to do with HPV. Personal disclosure: I believe that STIs represent the biggest failure in American public health, because controlling them is easy but totally flies in the face of the American obsession with personal responsibility. So in this article, we see how the issue of the HPV vaccine, at the time being debated as to whether it should go on the mandated vaccine register for female adolescents, is deconstructed through a feminist lens of bioethics, academic-code for OMG-levels of privilege. The author makes a lot of good points. Those good points are dripping in privilege. Just putting this one out there as food for thought.

I also learned something: inoculation was first developed in Africa, and used there before white people ever figured it out. In 1721, the pro-vaxxers learned of it from African slaves – which, for them, created significant confusion, and demonstrates that race and privilege were an issue back then too. They couldn’t reconcile their observations that inoculation worked with their belief that good things came as gifts from god, and that African people were inferior. Why would God grant an inferior people such a gift? On the flip side, anti-vaxxers said they were against a dangerous practice (which it was), but really they couldn’t see lowly slaves and clergy infiltrating on the privileged doctrine of medicine. This all also relates back to the ideas about identity – that your physical being (your body, skin color, etc) was directly tied to who you were. That is, the idea that skin color somehow says something about your ability. This gets wrapped up in disease and public health as these are things that actually affect the physical. Don’t think we’re over this today – a friend on Facebook pointed out that another layer to the story is about believing certain groups of people are more likely to carry disease.

The second article she sent along discussed why feminists should be cautious about HPV vaccines (which I actually have and currently think is a good thing). Valid points therein, in my opinion, include the “where are the men??” question – as men carry HPV, so why the f-all aren’t we calling for young men to be vaccinated? Again, ideas about identity, and responsibility (that is, women are responsibility for sexual health – as we are also responsible for pregnancy). HPV is a particularly neat one for male privilege as men don’t show symptoms (or get cancer), so can hide behind that as an excuse – they don’t need to worry about it. Never mind that being so symptom-less means they can spread that around more easily. Also, as the article wonders, shouldn’t men care about women’s health because they likely have moms/sisters/wives/daughters/friends?


So, you see, race and identity are always a confounding factor when we talk about public health. We should better understand that they should always be part of the discussion. As the anti-vaxx controversy of 1721 demonstrates – they can and do lead us astray.