This doctor’s New Year’s resolution? To continue working to end anti-Black racism and the collateral damage it has caused.
In this series, Resolutions, we asked clinicians about their New Year’s resolutions. What are our contributors resolving to do in 2023? Here’s how they answered.
The year is new, but racism is not.
Racism swept through my family before I was born like a tornado, leaving destruction in its wake that we will never fully recover from. Racism reverberated through my family tree from my ancestors down to me, like ripples in a lake after you throw in a stone—except, the ripples don’t stop. Racism causes a type of trauma that only American descendants of the enslaved can fully comprehend—a trauma that is not recognized in the pages of my DSM-V. The impact of anti-Black racism is never forgotten, permanently interwoven in our family stories.
Racism shows itself in my fair complexion which matches that of my mother. Growing up, my light brown skin often invited questions from friends and strangers about whether I was “mixed,” but I never identified that way. Mom, as always, gave me a brilliant and age-appropriate response when I questioned my racial background. “Well, there were definitely white people in our family, but I am not sure they were nice.” As I grew older, I learned what she meant. I learned of the birth certificates that were often changed in Black families in the south, adding Black men as fathers to children who were clearly fathered by a white male rapist. So, being fair-skinned has always been troubling for me, a reminder of racism—a reminder of the whiteness that was forced into my family without consent.
Racism shows itself in the fact that I only met 1 out of 4 of my grandparents. Indeed, it is documented that Black individuals live shorter lives than white individuals, in part due to the stress they experience from racism, and the poorer health care they receive.1-3 My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer before I was born. The white doctors caring for her did not treat it as aggressively as they should have, even though she left behind 8 children, my mom only 18 at the time, and my uncle only 11. Black patients receiving less aggressive care for cancer compared to white patients is not a figment of the past, either, as a recent study shows.4 I wonder how many Black individuals would be alive if it were not for white supremacy and racism. And I wonder why we do not talk about it more—why we aren’t angrier. Then again, I do not blame Black folks for being forced to internalize our pain. We have to survive.
As a psychiatry resident who specializes in the mental health effects of anti-Black racism, crafting a New Year’s resolution is always challenging. I do not believe that the problems stemming from anti-Black racism will be resolved in my lifetime, so 1 year feels inconsequential.
Working diligently on a longstanding issue can be tiring, and sometimes I feel that my voice does not matter. Also, as a Black woman myself, I continue to be targeted by racism, and I bear witness to it, too. Black child patients being called the “N word” commonly with little intervention from predominantly white staff, Black children being restrained for behaviors that are treated with compassion in my white child patients, Black patients being further traumatized by white therapists who assume they are uneducated and gang-affiliated—who minimize their suffering and make offensive statements about being Black. Each time, I speak out, but I am not always listened to. Sometimes, I am demeaned or dismissed. Sometimes, I am placated by leaders who have the power to change the racist behavior of their staff, but do not care enough.
But then I think beyond that.
I think about the tearful hugs from Black parents when they finally experience their child being validated and respected by a doctor who looks like them. I think about the sighs of relief when I name and validate the racism my Black patients experience. I think about the calls from other hospital systems to use hate speech protocols I have created. I think about the countless emails I receive after publishing an op-ed or doing a presentation. Sometimes the messages are from individuals who have changed their behaviors to check their own racism. Often, the emails are from individuals who have suffered from racist treatment themselves, but could not find the words to encapsulate their experiences. Or, they did not feel safe enough to tell their stories without retaliation.
So, in 2023, I resolve to own and honor my voice. I resolve to continue forging ahead in my work to end anti-Black racism and the collateral damage it has caused, both in the medical system and outside of it. Because my voice matters, and I will continue to use it.
Dr Calhoun is an adult/child psychiatry resident at Yale Child Study Center/Yale School of Medicine. She is an expert in the mental health effects of anti-Black racism.
1. Hill L, Artiga S, Haldar S. Key facts on health and health care by race and ethnicity. KFF. January 26, 2022. Accessed January 16, 2023. https://www.kff.org/report-section/key-facts-on-health-and-health-care-by-race-and-ethnicity-health-status-outcomes-and-behaviors/
2. Thames A. Study: racism shortens lives and hurts health of blacks by promoting genes that lead to inflammation and illness. The Conversation. October 17, 2019. Accessed January 16, 2023. https://theconversation.com/study-racism-shortens-lives-and-hurts-health-of-blacks-by-promoting-genes-that-lead-to-inflammation-and-illness-122027
3. Bridges KM. Implicit bias and racial disparities in health care. American Bar Association. Accessed January 16, 2023. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/the-state-of-healthcare-in-the-united-states/racial-disparities-in-health-care/
4. Number of cancer survivors in U.S. rises to 18 million, disparities in care remain. Healio. June 23, 2022. Accessed January 16, 2023. https://www.healio.com/news/hematology-oncology/20220623/number-of-cancer-survivors-in-us-rises-to-18-million-disparities-in-care-remain?utm_source=selligent&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news&M_BT=661079236240