Speaking out against institutional racism
A statement from leadership of Washington University School of Medicine
June 1, 2020
Dear Faculty, Staff, Fellows, Residents and Students,
All of us have been struggling over the past three months with fear and anxiety. Some have been working remotely in relative isolation while others have been managing the pressures of hands-on patient care. As an institution, we are hard at work trying to understand and manage a new virus that is as great a challenge as we have ever known.
Now another illness, longstanding and better understood but no more resolved, commands our attention. After the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, we all need to look into our hearts and confront the reality and implications of institutional racism.
We cannot ignore our history as a medical school, as a university, as a city and state, and as a nation. It isn’t enough to decry the acts of brutality that amount to a denial of fundamental human rights. Instead, we must recognize and address the institutional legacy that we all inherit.
This is a collective inheritance but many of us receive it to our advantage. For others, it is an unconscionable burden that is borne every day, in every interaction, throughout their lives. Recently, that burden has become even more crushing. We have all seen how people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many must now fight for their lives on two fronts.
Our national legacy, which reaches back more than 400 years, burdens Black men, Black women and Black children. Again and again, it has let them down and left them vulnerable to violence and disease. The original sin of this country still stains our nation today and, while good people readily call out flagrant bigotry, racism, sexism, and homophobia, the insidious, less pronounced oppressions too often go unacknowledged.
We are a society with an open wound but only some of us are suffering. Those who express dismay at the response of those who are hurting have never felt this particular pain. We must not look away from the injustice that keeps this wound, so deep it may never be fully cauterized, from healing.
None of us can be silent. Ending the silence of good people was a core goal of the Civil Rights Movement. We would do well to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We all need to find our voices.
The promise of a great institution like ours demands that we hold ourselves accountable to our ideals. We must see, acknowledge and respond to the inconvenient truths of our existence and do what we can to end systemic racism. It starts with accepting our duty to not be complacent, to not be silent. To call out that which needs to be called out and to open our arms and our hearts to everyone. As an institution, we are beginning to make these much needed changes. This Fall we will begin implementing our new Gateway Curriculum, which will teach a trauma-informed care approach to our medical students. We are also making changes to cases and content in the existing curriculum in an attempt to reduce the inherent biases and structural racism present in medical education. We will also be offering faculty continuing education to ensure a deeper understanding of structural racism and bias and their impact on medicine and medical education.
Those of us who have not experienced structural racism can never fully understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of our Black brothers and sisters. But we can aspire to do what we can, personally and professionally, to help ease their burden.
As School of Medicine employees, here are some basic steps you can take:
- Recognize that repeated exposure to racism and/or the burden of fighting to resist or eliminate it, can affect the mental, emotional and physical well-being of people of color. This fight must not be theirs alone, we all have a responsibility to work to end racial discrimination and inequities.
- Take advantage of the programming offered by our Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in order to examine your own biases, acquire the skills to become an upstander so that you can speak up about injustice, and/or enroll in a future Witnessing Whiteness workshop so that you can notice and respond to interpersonal, institutional and cultural racism.
- Understand that it is not the job of people of color to educate others about race and racism. Read up on bias, racism and antiracism. Some helpful books include:
- Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald
- Colorblind Racism, Meghan Burke
- How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi
- Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, Joe R. Feagin and Kimberley Ducey
- White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo
It is naïve to think that one workshop or a book will solve the problem of institutional racism but we must begin to change the stories we tell about ourselves and others. This work is not easy but it is necessary.
Associate Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance
Sherree Wilson, PhD
Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
David H. Perlmutter, MD
Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs and Dean