Black girl pushing aside curtains with words such as fear, anger, discrimination

Hope in a Racialized Society

Exhausted by racism, I’m energized by the opportunity to advance anti-racism.

By Keshia M. Pollack Porter • Illustration by Simone Martin-Newberry

I clearly remember the day I first became aware of my race. 

I was 7 years old. After seeing my brother, who has lighter skin than me, one of my classmates asked me which one of my parents was white. I vividly recall thinking, "What a stupid question! Both my parents are Black.” Little did I know that my classmate’s question would be the beginning of my awareness as a Black female in a racialized society.

My parents immigrated to the U.S. as single young people seeking opportunity. Although they did not attend college, they knew that education was the key to opportunities. We lived in the suburbs of Long Island, and we attended predominantly white schools, where I was acutely aware that I was almost always the only Black student in my class. It would happen again and again: I was in the minority race in K-12 and throughout college, graduate school, and now as a member of the Bloomberg School’s faculty. 

Along the way, I encountered people who made sure that I knew I was Black. Whether it was the salesperson who followed closely behind me in the store, the white woman who said that I must have gone to good schools because I “spoke well” for a Black person, or the white man who could not believe that I was hired to the faculty as the Leon S. Robertson Faculty Development Chair in Injury Prevention and asked if I “only got that position” because I was an affirmative action hire.

While these direct experiences of racism and so many more are egregious and painful, I am grateful that I am alive, that racism has not taken my life as it has the lives of so many other Black people. Racism expressed by the hands of law enforcement that took the lives of 46-year-old George Floyd, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, or 22-year-old Stephon Clark. Racism that manifests as stress and contributes to Black lives lost from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Structural racism that is meant to oppress Black people and to uphold white supremacy and that has cut way too many Black lives short. 

After so many killings of Black men and women by police, which have been occurring for over 400 years, and the way COVID-19 has decimated members of the communities that I care about, work with, and come from, I am exhausted. 

The strange thing is that I am fueled by my exhaustion and even more energized to fight for racial justice. 

Angela Davis famously said, “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” I am hopeful because I see a genuine opportunity to advance anti-racism in this country and in this School. I am encouraged by the number of white allies whom I see standing up and supporting Black Lives Matter. Advancing anti-racism involves acknowledging that racism is not an aberration or a collection of individual acts of discrimination; it is systemic and intentional. As a system, racism affects every aspect of life and all institutions, including economic, carceral, military, educational, and religious. We must radically transform existing systems and institutions to eliminate structural racism and advance racial equity so that Black, Indigenous, and people of color have access to free quality education, reliable transportation systems, affordable housing, and opportunities to build wealth. 

I am also hopeful when I reflect on changes that I see here at the Bloomberg School. We have a new dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion. (Please my conversation with Joel Bolling in this issue.) The new Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Anti-Racism, and Equity (IDARE) specifically includes anti-racism in its title. Each department has created a new leadership position to lead anti-racism efforts. These steps and others give me hope that one day institutional racism will no longer exist. 

I am honored to be the guest editor for this special section on racism as a public health crisis. While racism impacts many populations, we intentionally focus this section on Black communities. The articles that follow celebrate Black scholars and experiences and document the impact of racism on Black communities. I hope the pieces we selected challenge you, increase your awareness, help you unpack issues and concepts, and answer questions you may have as you determine your role in eliminating structural and institutional racism. 

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