The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Health: An Ongoing Conversation
The intersectionality of race and gender is not a new topic of conversation. It has served as a significant social determinant of health inequity across cultures for generations, causing a weathering effect on women, girls, and people of color. With the rise of COVID-19 cases, we immediately saw how it disproportionately impacts people of color as these communities experience much higher rates of infection and hospitalization. In addition to far more people of color contracting and dying from COVID-19, women and girls are experiencing an increase in domestic violence due to lockdowns as well as having to continue to fight for their reproductive rights. So the question now becomes, where do we go from here? What is our call to action? How do we progress in order for neither gender, race, nor the intersection of both to serve as a social determinant of one’s health?
“‘Feminism is homework’ . . . Homework isn’t glorified. It’s done quietly, behind the scenes: learning that may bear fruit down the line when knowledge is truly tested.” — Lori from her piece “I’ve seen first-hand the toxic racism in international women’s rights groups” in The Guardian
As both a person of color and someone who identifies as a woman, I attended GHC’s webinar, Shift Happens: A Fireside Chat on the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Health with Lori Adelman, Vice President of Influence and Engagement at the Global Fund for Women, and moderated by GHC alumna Mine Metitiri, Deputy Director of Cancer Registry at Vital Strategies. These two women are passionate advocates for health, racial and gender equity. Since GHC is committed to creating space for difficult conversations in order to mobilize a diverse community of leaders, working towards achieving global health equity, this time to speak with Lori and Mine was a great way to continue to learn, to grow, and to more deeply understand how the narrative around this intersection has shifted because of the pandemic.
“Where does this conversation around the intersection of race, gender, and health fall for you?” Lori asked.
We were all given a moment to think about where we stood on this spectrum. The majority of us were in the learning edge section while the remainder was in the comfort zone, and no one was in the danger zone. This question gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own conversations surrounding the intersection of race and gender. As an adopted Chinese woman, growing up in a white suburban neighborhood, I was sheltered for many years of my life, and it wasn’t until I moved to Washington, DC to attend college that I began to grapple with my own identity.
What does being a woman mean to me? What does being an adopted Chinese woman mean to me? What does being Chinese mean to me? I had always thought that I had a good sense of self, but when digging deeper, I realized there was a lot more that I had to unpack. I was rarely given the space to think about my racial identity, so the last few years have been an awakening. But, I am still in the learning edge category.
Lori has identified as an activist her whole life, and the question boiled down to “What kind of activist am I going to be?” When she was in high school, she saw two distinct categories: racial justice activist or feminist activist. She didn’t see a way to be both. But now, she knows that her career in feminism doesn’t mean she has to choose between her identity as a Black woman or her identity as a woman.
When we first went into lockdown in March 2020, I was anxious and worried 24/7. I hated the uncertainty of the pandemic, and to be honest, I was in denial about the severity of the virus. Then in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the end of May, it was like a siren going off in my head. I had been following #Black Lives Matter since it began in 2013, but now, as a twenty-two-year-old, I understood much more than I had eight years prior. For me, this was a moment to educate myself and fully immerse myself in the systemic racism and racial inequities in the United States.
“Racism and misogyny are so deeply intertwined that they cannot be disentangled. We really can’t talk about one without talking about the other.” — Celeste Ng
A year has passed since our first lockdown, and there is now an increase in attacks against Asian Americans as a result of former US President Donald Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric. Alongside this, we are still fighting for our reproductive rights. In the US, when Amy Coney Barrett was sworn into the Supreme Court, I was terrified that my right to birth control was about to be stripped away. Listening to Lori speak about her own experience coming to terms with activism made me realize the similarities between her high school self and me. I can be a gender equity activist and also be a racial justice activist. There is no one or the other.
Lori and Mine went on to speak about the number of COVID-19 cases per region. North America, South America, and Europe had some of the worst outbreaks while the low-income countries fared much better because they had experience with previous outbreaks like Ebola. However, despite this, it is the rich countries that are hoarding the world’s vaccines. Where you’re born and where you live should not be a determining factor of whether you live or die. Additionally, if only certain countries are receiving the vaccine, then the pandemic is going to continue.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
When asked “What’s the call to action?” Mine responded by saying that the one word that comes to her mind is humility. You have to be someone who is always continuously learning. You need to humble yourself. You have to figure out where your power is. Mine does not take it into her hands to show people how to be an advocate, but rather, she steps aside and makes space for people to show up and use the power they do have. Lori adds on by saying that the call to action is also flexibly funding grassroots, gender justice, and racial justice leaders for lasting change; we have to trust these leaders.
The intersection of race and gender will remain a prominent social determinant of health inequity until we find sustainable ways to combat it. Lori mentions that we need to talk laterally, that it is important to talk at the sector level because this is where real advocacy needs to take place. In order to create lasting change, we do need to start from the bottom up.
After listening to Mine and Lori discuss what the intersection of race and gender means to them and their work in activism, I can see how imperative it is that we take the time to listen to other people as well. Mine and Lori are both Black women, and therefore, have had different experiences from me, and they also have had different experiences from each other. The common ground we all share is that we are women of color who are health equity, racial equity, and gender equity activists, and in that, a door has opened to keep these conversations alive. We must continue to use our voices so that the generations after us will not be bound by this social determinant.
Julia Johnson is the Spring 2021 Communications and Development Intern at Global Health Corps as well as a senior at The George Washington University, studying Creative Writing and English.
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.