AMPLIFY
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AMPLIFY

Year in Review: A Reflection on Race in America

Illustration by Roman Genn (https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/08/race-relations-getting-worse-america-why/)

Last year, I lived in Washington, D.C. as a Global Health Corps fellow, working as the Director of Programs at a nonprofit called The Grassroot Project. My work focused on providing sexual health education to middle school students, and the organization’s mentorship model of recruiting student athletes from universities to be health educators is what particularly attracted me to this opportunity. Under the model, student athletes go into classrooms once a week for 8 weeks to deliver a game-based curriculum. It’s work that couldn’t be more appropriate or needed, because 1 in 30 people living in D.C. are HIV positive.

As a North American, I thought life in D.C. wouldn’t be vastly different from life in Toronto. I was so wrong! The move took me by surprise, initially manifesting as the most intense culture shock I’ve experienced in recent memory, despite having visiting 26 countries in my life. I thought the social fabric of D.C. and Toronto would be similar, but I was mistaken. One phenomenon clearly tipped the balance: race relations.

This Black History Month, I’m reflecting on my experience at a time when race relations in America are a frequent point of discussion. I read in The Nation that the average Black family would need 228 years to build the wealth of a White family today in the U.S., which is shocking. Stats like this one underscore how deeply systemic inequity and injustice are. Black lives do not matter as much as white lives. You can obey all orders, do as you are told, and even so it won’t be enough to safeguard your life if the colour of your skin is melanin rich. In fact, in America melanin rich is an acceptable prerequisite for the undignified loss of your life.

Monique at work with students involved with programming at The Grassroot Project

I saw this during my fellowship when I made a visit to a local D.C. public school seeking to initiate a new partnership for The Grassroot Project. I was alone and as I waited in the foyer to meet with the Assistant Principal, I was puzzled. I stood and looked at class pictures from the past five years, scanning every grade level:

Grade 6, I ran my eyes across the rows of students from left to right.

Grade 7, I ran my eyes across the rows of students from left to right.

Grade 8, I ran my eyes across the rows of students from left to right.

Every single student was Black, or at least appeared to be. Every single student.

To be honest, for a split second I thought, “Oh my, did I somehow fail to do my homework? In some places of the U.S. are segregation laws still enforced?! That can’t be.” Well it is not technically allowed by law, but some force is definitely still at work because this school was certainly a school filled with exclusively Black little boys and Black little girls. My mind immediately drifted to my experience as a child. At my elementary school, in a neighbourhood that everyone knew about but few people visited because of its “bad” reputation (like most of the schools/neighborhoods I worked alongside in D.C.), my kindergarten class resembled a United Nations Assembly! Yes, we may have all come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, but our diversity in culture and heritage provided an opportunity to engage with, play alongside, and learn from children who were different from me. My experience in the U.S. revealed to me that from a young age all the way through adulthood there seems to be a palpable mistrust woven into the social fabric.

Digesting all the dynamics of racial interactions in the U.S. demanded a lot of energy. In many ways you could say it was mentally exhausting. As I reflected, what was interesting to me was the why. Why did I feel emotional exhaustion in the United States of America when I’ve lived in countries where legacies of colonialism are ever present? But in America it’s different. In Malawi where I was living a couple years ago for example, there is a history of Black communities existing and thriving on their own terms. Yes of course with their own sets of trials, like in any community. Nevertheless, there seems to exist in other societies more of a direct connection to the history of Black communities existing in their own right prior to a global re-organization of power. That same precedent has never existed in the U.S. Instead, Black Americans were slotted into a system where their sole purpose was to be used for labour. When that is the only and original intention for you in a society, the negative effects can still be felt all these years later. From various angles both within and external to the community there are restricted definitions assigned to who and what you can be.

If you have enough time, if you are open to learning, and if you listen long enough, you will witness that where the struggle is greatest an even greater strength and beautifully mystifying resilience is also present. The power of perspective is formidable. Despite the system, despite the oppression, despite disconnection, creativity and influence flow from the Black community. Take culture and music, for example — America’s biggest exports. You can travel the world over and you’d be hard pressed to come across someone who doesn’t know Beyonce or Michael Jackson! That’s the definition of a legacy.

In Washington D.C. I met many everyday heroes. I am humbled to call some of them confidants, teachers, friends, and family. I witnessed a Black women working tirelessly to improve health outcomes for Black mothers and children. I witnessed a Black man creating intentional spaces for the Black community to share, to love, to be vulnerable, to connect, and to heal. These people have devoted their life missions to supporting and building the Black community. It’s reflected in their careers, in their weekend plans, in their writing, and it’s reflected in the essence of who they are as people and as Black Americans.

A while back, a friend sent me a piece from The New Yorker called “Radical Hope” by Junot Diaz that deems ‘ radical hope’ a practiced perspective. It involves looking forward to a future goodness and believing that it is possible. The catch is that if you only look at present circumstances you can’t quite understand what the future goodness is exactly, or what it could look like. Even so, radical hope is believing it exists against all odds. It’s what propels everyday heroes forward. For Black Americans the struggle continues, a fight to fully exist wholesomely, hopefully with enduring radical hope on their side.

Above all, my fellowship year in the U.S. affirmed for me some critical truths about the oppressed: We will keep surviving. Business as usual, still we rise, to paraphrase the great Maya Angelou.

Monique Miller was a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow.

Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.

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New voices and ideas from Global Health Corps, a diverse community of over 1000 young leaders worldwide united by the belief that health is a human right. We tell our own stories, honestly and thoughtfully, because this is where our activism begins.

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Monique Miller

Monique Miller

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