As part of Boston College's ongoing Forum on Racial Justice, Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones led a webinar entitled "Tools for Becoming a Racial Justice Warrior" in conjunction with the Connell School of Nursing on Tuesday. “I’m excited to be equipping future racial justice warriors,” said Jones, senior fellow at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
As the former president of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Jones uses her platform to spearhead a national campaign against racism. Her presentation left her audience with a drive to combat racism on the Boston College campus.
Dr. Jones defined racism as a system of power that structures opportunity and assigns value based on the social interpretation of how one looks.
“When I talk about racism, I am talking about a system,” Jones said. “Not a character flaw, or a personal moral failing, or even a psychiatric illness. But I have come to understand that there are many people in this country who think, ‘yes, there are two states of being: disadvantaged and normal.’ And the reason they think this is that we as a nation are ahistorical, and people do not understand that their so-called ‘normal’ is built on a whole mountain of unfair advantage.” These systems “sap the strength of the whole society” because while human skill sets are not limited to skin color, they’re disregarded in a society rooted in racism.
The first objective of Dr. Jones’s campaign against racism, which was launched in 2016, is to name racism and call it what it is. “If we don’t name racism in our national context of widespread denial, we are complicit in that denial,” Jones said. She shared a story during her presentation: while Jones was eating in a restaurant, she looked up and saw an ‘Open’ sign, the same as those brightly plastered across the windows of many restaurants. These signs, however, are double-sided; if she could see the side that said ‘Open,’ that meant there were people outside of the restaurant who saw the side that said ‘Closed.’ This denial of access, she realized, is mirrored in our own society towards various racial groups.
Once racism is acknowledged, the immediate question is, “How is racism operating here?” When people look at the sign that says ‘Open,’ most don’t realize that the same sign reads ‘Closed’ to others. But the purpose is to take that sign and fully consider how it conceptually applies to a nearby situation. “Racism structures a dual reality,” Jones said. “For those who are sitting inside the restaurant at the table of opportunity, it is difficult to recognize a system of inequity that privileges them.”
And why should they? “It’s part of your privilege not to have to know,” Dr. Jones said. “But once you do know, you can choose to act.” In the restaurant, there are several measures that those inside can take. Dr. Jones suggested that perhaps they could ask the restaurant owner to allow more people inside to eat. This involves conversations with local policymakers and politicians, lobbying for improvement. But if that fails to produce fruit, this is the most critical time to stay focused. “We must go beyond saying a thing to doing a thing, to acting,” she said. “So we need to tear down the sign, dismantle the lock, take the door off its hinges.” Create change when others fall short.
Naming racism, detecting it, acting on it. The three of these together are the most effective tools to eradicate racism but do not hold enough weight on their own. The battle is against a deeply internalized system that manifests in cyclically inherited disadvantage, actions rooted in prejudice, and stigmas that lead to feelings of resignation and self-devaluation.
Dr. Jones elaborated on these levels of racism with another allegory. A gardener who has seeds for red and pink blossoms and two pots, one containing rich soil and one containing poor, rocky soil prefers red blossoms over pink blossoms. She plants red in the rich soil and pink in the poor soil. This initial separation of seed based on the gardener’s color preference develops to the point where the red blossoms bloom and go to seed season after season while the pink blossoms eventually die out.
The gardeners in this case are the people who have control over the resource wealth. The gardener is the government, the media, and the communities. And the gardener becomes dangerous when she is not concerned with equity.
“The only way to set things right in the garden,” Dr. Jones contended, “is to address the structural racism.” Break down the boxes, mix up the soil so both are equally enriched. “Those pink flowers didn’t launch themselves into that poor, rocky soil, so we need to talk about cultural racism and history in order to mend it.” Otherwise that gardener’s children, and the generations that follow, will grow up seeing beautiful red blossoms alongside weak pink blossoms and continue to privilege red over pink. But what they won’t understand, said Dr. Jones, is that “the rich soil never belonged to the red flowers; it belonged to the whole garden.”
So how do people join the fight against racism? “Be a compatriot,” advised Dr. Jones. Rather than attempting to conceal or deny one’s white privilege, use it. Confront family members about their racist ideals and belief systems. Deconstruct the myth of American exceptionalism, of white supremacy, of meritocracy. Eliminate the perception that this world is a zero-sum game that pits racial groups against one another. Protest. Vote.
“When did white people claim exclusive access to excellence? [They never did]," concluded Dr. Jones. “And Black lives do not just matter—Black lives are precious, Black lives are genius.” Indeed.