Racism Is a Public Health Emergency


Thank you to Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins for this assertion and your leadership in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer this week, on May 25, 2020. [Note: This post contains discussion about racist violence.]


I cannot rest as Well Beings Studio’s Executive and Artistic Director until I break my White silence about racism as a public health emergency. Speaking out about the weaponizing of the police against African American families is integral to our emotional well-being. Speaking out about racism in our health care system is integral to our well-being. COVID-19 disparity data exposes that Black and Brown people have been disproportionately infected and killed by the coronavirus and other health related conditions. Cancer treatment disparity data exposes that Black and Brown people are more likely to develop and die of cancer and less likely to receive preventative screening.

Why have White people been killing us since slavery? And they are still killing us. -African American boy in junior high, First reported in West Baltimore, on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. From A Decade of Watching Black Men Die, Code Switch, NPR, May 29, 2020.

This country (this world) has a long history of racism. Racism is intrinsically linked with poverty. Racism causes trauma that affects all of our emotional well-being: it is a public health emergency we must address through systemic efforts to change polices and practices at every level of our lives.


So many of us are in pain. We have deteriorating faith in the police system to protect all lives. We have deteriorating faith in the justice system to protect all lives. We have deteriorating faith in the school system to teach about systemic racism and ways to be anti-racist. We have deteriorating faith in the government to write, implement and ensure laws that address racism and protect the rights and well-being of all lives.


What can I do but rage and create?


From Wet Wings, 2020. by Sharon Frances.

They grow the cancer
Plunder the land
Hit the child
Deny jobs
Press a knee to his neck
Rape her body
Heat the ovens
Tie the rope
Turn a profit
Spray the food
Spill the oil
Scrub las bocas
Grow the cancer
How can we rid our bodies of this poison?
How can we bind its stretching tendrils?
How can we laugh when we cannot breathe?
What happens when 
listening and looking
testifying and advocating
kissing and hugging 
bending down and picking up 
yelling, "He's not even moving."
What happens when none of it works?
When he tucks a hand in his pocket 
And chokes the world with his white power.

What can I do but teach and heal?


From Wet Wings, 2020. by Sharon Frances.

Created from a child’s breath
Blown from a wand of any shape
A perfect sphere
Surface tension holds strong as it
Spins alongside the others
Reflecting iridescent colors in sunlight
To catch them, my daughter reaches through her whole body
Fingertips almost touching their strong yet fragile whole
Personal space is a bubble
Built from invisible energy.
I burst it once—when I was four, 
prancing around another child at preschool
chanting his name, foreign on my tongue
While he cried under the blanket 
we wrapped him in,
It bobbed on the fingers we pointed at his skin.
Pop
A school burst it once—the bubble 
so delicately and intentionally blown
through the coos of parent to baby,
her name in whispers—the many I love yous,
heard in languages unspoken at school
Those words kept her bubble whole
Until one day in kindergarten 
It bobbed onto a pencil tip that wrote some other name for her.
Her American name.
Pop
I wonder about the blowing and bursting of bubbles
Who gets to dip into the sticky substance of life’s self worth?
Who gets to hold the wand and blow?
Who gets to burst? And what follows—
a squeal of excitement, a tear of loss
a gasp of breath,
some other quiet death.
Pop
How can I be a mother now,
based on what I wished I had known as a girl,
About the fragility of belonging?
About living in safety, being our actual selves
Whose differences we hold in stark relief
from the cookie cutter body,
the news anchor accent,
the invisible power of whiteness.
Pop
How can I attend to the not-saying and not-hearing,
the broken streets and buildings on fire?
Pop pop pop
What if everyone in charge says there is no time or space 
to work, to include, to fix, to heal?
Pop       pop     pop     pop    pop
I am too old to be young, too young to forget
But my daughter is just right when it comes to 
questioning the logic of this world:
"People shouldn't value me more than anyone else, Mommy."
Our bodies stretch to the open sky, 
her fingertips touch
what is possible.
We have bubbles to burst,
and so many new ones to blow.

What can I do but listen, learn and act?

Mental health is important. If you need support, contact MentalHealth.gov. You can also visit your local 211 website (in Orange County, CA ours is www.211oc.org). If you are in crisis, please dial 911.


Many thanks to the Social Justice Sewing Academy, for this blog’s feature image, Draining All the Color Out, Quilt Block of the Month. The pattern was designed by Tara J Curtis, based on an original quilt block by SJSA Youth Artivist Bianca.


Also many thanks to Christine Jobson for her #GeorgeFloyd episode of the This and That Podcast, which inspired this post.


Sharon Chappell, PhD, is the Executive and Artistic Director of Well Beings Studio. She is a teacher, breast cancer survivor, parent and artist. 

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