Dear Public Health Practitioners
Dear Public Health Practitioners,
I need you to embrace your flawed humanity in a self-aware way.
You see, I know many of you entered this field to help people. I get that. I mean, that’s why I entered the field. I wanted to do work that would actually benefit people in some way instead of convincing them to spend money and make somebody even more rich. That said, I still kind of ended up helping someone else get richer, just indirectly. Damn lobbyists. Damn tangents.
I went into public health because I know from experience that information and support are key to improvement, and I wanted to be in a position to provide that to those who need it.
Now, I admit, my intention wasn’t as magnanimous when I went back to grad school. At the time, I was riding the high of losing a bunch of weight and being in some of the best physical condition of my adult life. I felt like I was a walking, talking inspiration and I wanted to go be someone’s role model. Arrogant, I know. But I felt like a success story and I wanted to share it.
Then I sat in class with so many arrogant, know better people who were in public health to feed their savior complex or feel authoritative enough to tell other people what to do. I sat through class after class of racist, sizeist, ableist, classist, heteronormative, transphobic bullshit that would consistently send me home hating myself more than usual.
I sat in class learning about health disparities, about all the ways that Black, LGBTQIA, and people with disabilities were failing in health – doctor visits, pregnancy, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, obesity, and general health care. I spent 2 years and thousands of dollars listening to the public health version of the white, able-bodied, supremacist narrative.
And I did not exit grad school unscathed. It beat me down. Then I built myself up with a stronger understanding of how programmed this country, and its education systems are. I wasn’t a malleable college student who you could shape to fit your worldview. I grew up living with the socioeconomic factors contributing to your determinants of health pyramid. I was and am those statistics, as is my family, and friends. So while you sat there debating their abstract assumptions of poor health outcomes, I had firsthand experience and a better informed context for it.
What struck me most was everything you didn’t say. You didn’t talk about systemic oppression. You talked about eating fast “food” instead of fresh vegetables. You didn’t talk about entire neighborhoods build on superfund sites, next to oil refineries, and highways - potentially exposing every resident to unknown toxins leeching into the water supply and particulate matter from automobile pollution.
You didn’t talk about how the prison industrial complex was just revised slavery and how that financially and socially impacted entire generations. You talked about low income and poor nutrition. You didn’t talk about over-policing of Black neighborhoods; you talked about cracks in sidewalks (literally) as you took your white students to predominantly Black populated areas in the city and played your poverty porn monologue.
You didn’t talk about white supremacy. You reinforced it. And I came home and cried. I cried as the fat, Black woman who was told she was a burden on the system in every way, simply for existing. I listened to lectures that presented “facts” spun into a convoluted victim blaming. Then I watched as a class of privileged white people bloated from their sense of self-importance and accomplishment moved from the classroom into the public health workforce. People who felt they were better than the people they “helped” because of their hard work and merit, when really it was because their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had access to public funds, government subsidies, and land grants – wealth building tools that Black people were specifically excluded from receiving.
I watched as they joined the save Africa brigade – feeding like ticks on the idea that they can rescue the brown people of the world with their selflessness.
I listened to self-righteous professors’ circle jerk on their textbooks and their research projects, claiming to have solved problems that weren’t problems. A twenty-pound weight loss maintained for 2 years is not the key to preventing heart disease, nor does it improve anyone’s life long-term in any tangible way. But, you know, fat equals bad.
When I entered grad school, I saw myself going into chronic disease, because I felt like it would be a good fit for me. I like talking to people and hearing their stories. I love problem solving and I know chronic disease – it’s a topic I’ve been drawn to for years. After grad school, I realized that going into chronic disease would be a form of emotional torture. I’d be subjecting myself to bigoted thinking, daily, if not hourly, micro and macroaggressions, in addition to political spin forcefully applied to health topics as the struggle to stay funded is real.
It is safe to say that public health did me the favor of reminding me of the work that needs to be done and showing me that current systems aren’t going to address it.
So, public health practitioners, specifically the non-Black public health practitioners, I need you to get your heads out of your asses. You literally ARE the problem. When students sit in class listening to professors shame people for needing to use a motorized scooter in the grocery store, you are the problem.
When students shame people using public transportation and then judge what they are eating and drinking without speaking to them, they are the problem.
When you dictate to people the help they need without asking them what help they need, you are the problem.
When you punish students for not fitting into your narrative, you are the problem.
When you see yourself as the savior of anyone, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.
And frankly, I need you to save yourself from your arrogance and self-importance. I need you to listen to people. I need you to care about more than your publications and your promotion.
I need you to make a career of actively dismantling white supremacy. Stop making yourself the center of change. Stop making any of this about you. Because it isn’t. And when you force it to be about you, you harm the people you intended to “help.”