From me to us: Taking racism from the individual to the structural

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During a recent afternoon at BMSG, my colleagues and I got together over lunch to view and discuss a video on the root causes of poor health. The video, featuring Dr. Camara Jones, a health equity researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that one of these causes is racism. It also showed that if we are going to tackle racism, we have to broaden our understanding of it from an issue that's solely about individual acts of discrimination to an issue that is structural -- in other words, one that stems from political decisions and practices that consistently advantage some groups over others.

This is easier said than done.

Right in the middle of Jones' otherwise engaging exploration of racism's connection to health, my mind wandered and I experienced a flashback. I was transported to my fifth grade classroom at Cantua Creek Elementary, a K-8 school that served the farm worker community in west Fresno County.

I was sitting at my desk in science class. The teacher's name escapes me, but I remember him as a tall, thin, bald and affable man. And I remember being the teacher's pet, although I can't imagine why since I was terrible at science. On this day, I was wearing a jean jacket with a gold UFW lapel pin given to me by my sister, a former union organizer who began taking me to meetings up and down the Central Valley. It was the beginning of my social and political education, and I remember being so proud of my pin.

But my teacher felt otherwise.

"Just because you're wearing that pin, don't think you'll get any special treatment in here," I recall him announcing in front of the class. Right then and there, I stopped being his favorite. I felt shamed by the man I had looked up to for support and approval. Worst of all, he made me feel ashamed of being Mexican.

I brought up my flashback during our discussion of the video we had just seen, and a colleague pointed out that I had personalized the discussion of racism as part of a process that we teach participants in our media advocacy training called the default frame.

This frame, or way of looking at the world, puts the responsibility for our good health on individuals and fails to include all of the institutions and systems in place that undermine our health, such as racist and exclusionary public policies that most impact low-income and communities of color. This frame is especially troublesome because if health problems are defined solely as matters of personal responsibility, the public won't see how the circumstances surrounding people also affect their health.

But I offer that for people of color, you have to "sit" with racism and other forms of discrimination before you reframe the discussion to cue the environmental or structural manifestations of oppression. Something as deeply personal and impactful as racism simply isn't processed in systemic terms. But using language that moves racism from personal to structural is key to showing how policy change can right wrongs experienced by entire populations.

As the son of undocumented immigrants, it was my personal experience with immigration policy that fueled both my journalistic passion and advocacy for fair and balanced reporting when I was the immigration reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News during the contentious immigration debate in the mid-2000s.

I advocated for telling the stories of immigrants in our coverage of immigration, a glaring omission in the Colorado press. I formed a committee to stop the newspaper from using the dehumanizing term "illegal(s)" as a noun, especially in headlines. And as a lifetime member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, I petitioned the organization to call for an end to the term's use.

All the while, I kept thinking to myself: "No one is going to call my mom an illegal."

I like to think that I was part of a movement that grew to gain large-scale support from a variety of groups and organizations, such as the Applied Research Center, which launched the "Drop the I-Word" campaign in 2010 in order to remove "illegals" from everyday use and public discourse.

Earlier this year, The Associated Press announced it would drop the phrase "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook, which is the journalism industry's definitive guide for reporters and editors.

So, there are two lessons here (one I've blogged about before): Allow the personal pain of racial injustice and oppression fuel your advocacy efforts -- just make sure to connect your story to institutional change.

And remember, change takes time.

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