circle of hands to express diversity

Do the Work

Being “woke” is not enough to counter the oppressive weight of institutional racism—at the School and beyond.

By Tamar Mendelson

The Bloomberg School’s Strategic Plan outlines a mission to promote social justice within and beyond our institution.

It charges the School community with creating a supportive climate of diversity and inclusion with a special commitment to our own city of Baltimore.

How can we achieve these goals and do so without causing further harm to marginalized communities?

It is critical that contributions to this mission not fall predominantly on Black and Indigenous communities, and people of color. Asking members of groups that have historically been excluded and marginalized at institutions to be primary change agents is itself a manifestation of white supremacy and the false narrative of white innocence. White members of our community have a responsibility to shift the School toward an anti-racist institutional culture and to increase its positive impact on social justice in Baltimore and worldwide.

As a white person, it is all too easy to be passive about changing white supremacist systems that benefit me. It’s tempting to believe I am already part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I’m woke. I care about ending racial oppression. I’m one of the “good” white people. But being broadly “against” systemic racism at the academy does not absolve me of identifying, interrogating, and resisting the particulars of how systemic forces operate daily in my own life.

Systems are made up of people, and I am one of those people.

Each of us contributes to institutional culture, practices, and impact. I can counter racism at Hopkins, to some extent, by helping to:

  • Improve recruitment, hiring, and admissions practices to successfully attract more underrepresented groups.
  • Create a climate that truly welcomes, values, and supports students, staff, and faculty of diverse identities.
  • Teach and mentor in ways that acknowledge systemic racism and its toxic impact on health.
  • Develop trusting relationships with community members, listen to their perspectives, and elicit their ongoing buy-in and feedback to minimize the chance that my research harms them.
  • Acknowledge privilege and past harms, share or shift power, make space for traditionally marginalized perspectives, and take a back seat or supporting role as needed.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are challenges to engaging in this work. It is uncomfortable to admit my own biases and participation in harmful systems of privilege. (Of course, this discomfort is mild compared to the trauma of experiencing racism.)

Working toward these anti-racist aspirations will be a lifelong endeavor.

The changes required go against the grain of high-powered academic institutions, which generally reward research productivity, thought leadership, and excellence in accepted scientific metrics above power sharing or power transfer to communities and exploration of non-Western methodologies. Pressure to secure grants and build a record of high-impact publications is often at odds with the long-term work of building equitable community partnerships and an anti-racist institutional culture.

A focus on self-development can help me engage in this work more effectively. This includes:

  • Taking time alone and with other white people to identify and modify my biases and harmful actions.
  •  Educating myself about racism and resistance.
  • Acknowledging when I have perpetrated racist harm, attempting to repair it if possible, and learning from my mistakes.

Social justice groups at the School also offer potential for self-growth and institutional impact. For instance, the Department of Mental Health developed an MH IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism in Science) group based on an IDEAS group created in Epidemiology. These groups have a horizontal structure without formal leaders and offer supportive spaces for discussion and strategy development.

Working toward these anti-racist aspirations will be a lifelong endeavor. I hope to engage in this process with other white (as well as non-white) members of the School community.

The goal is a liberatory future for all people at Hopkins and those whose lives we impact for better or worse through our work.