Why we should continue to study race...but do a better job: an essay on race, racism and health


  • 1 Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21205, USA.
  • PMID: 8882833

For at least a century, American medical and public health researchers have used race as a marker for biology, and have documented race-associated differences in health and illness behavior. The research has often been inappropriate and has led to abuses and erroneous conclusions about the role played by race in the production of disparities in health status. Consequently, some researchers have begun to advocate the abolition of medical and public health research using race. In this essay, I argue that, although the arguments against continuing to study race have some merit, more rather than fewer studies of race are needed. Researchers should be more careful in the use of race and more conscious of the limitations of the race concept.

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  • Health Status
  • Models, Biological
  • Racial Groups*
  • United States

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Hear Something, Say Something: Navigating The World Of Racial Awkwardness

Listen to this week's episode.

We've all been there — confronted with something shy of overt racism, but charged enough to make us uncomfortable. So what do you do?

We've all been there — having fun relaxing with friends and family, when someone says something a little racially off. Sometimes it's subtle, like the friend who calls Thai food "exotic." Other times it's more overt, like that in-law who's always going on about "the illegals."

In any case, it can be hard to know how to respond. Even the most level-headed among us have faltered trying to navigate the fraught world of racial awkwardness.

So what exactly do you do? We delve into the issue on this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, featuring writer Nicole Chung and Code Switch's Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby and Karen Grigsby Bates.

We also asked some folks to write about what runs through their minds during these tense moments, and how they've responded (or not). Their reactions ran the gamut from righteous indignation to total passivity, but in the wake of these uncomfortable comments, everyone seemed to walk away wishing they'd done something else.

Aaron E. Sanchez

It was the first time my dad visited me at college, and he had just dropped me off at my dorm. My suitemate walked in and sneered.

"Was that your dad?" he asked. "He looks sooo Mexican."

essay on race and racism

Aaron E. Sanchez is a Texas-based writer who focuses on issues of race, politics and popular culture from a Latino perspective. Courtesy of Aaron Sanchez hide caption

He kept laughing about it as he left my room.

I was caught off-guard. Instantly, I grew self-conscious, not because I was ashamed of my father, but because my respectability politics ran deep. My appearance was supposed to be impeccable and my manners unimpeachable to protect against stereotypes and slights. I felt exposed.

To be sure, when my dad walked into restaurants and stores, people almost always spoke to him in Spanish. He didn't mind. The fluidity of his bilingualism rarely failed him. He was unassuming. He wore his working-class past on his frame and in his actions. He enjoyed hard work and appreciated it in others. Yet others mistook him for something altogether different.

People regularly confused his humility for servility. He was mistaken for a landscape worker, a janitor, and once he sat next to a gentleman on a plane who kept referring to him as a "wetback." He was a poor Mexican-American kid who grew up in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso, Texas, for certain. But he was also an Air Force veteran who had served for 20 years. He was an electrical engineer, a proud father, an admirable storyteller, and a pretty decent fisherman.

I didn't respond to my suitemate. To him, my father was a funny caricature, a curio he could pick up, purchase and discard. And as much as it was hidden beneath my elite, liberal arts education, I was a novelty to him too, an even rarer one at that. Instead of a serape, I came wrapped in the trappings of middle-classness, a costume I was trying desperately to wear convincingly.

That night, I realized that no clothing or ill-fitting costume could cover us. Our bodies were incongruous to our surroundings. No matter how comfortable we were in our skins, our presence would make others uncomfortable.

Karen Good Marable

When the Q train pulled into the Cortelyou Road station, it was dark and I was tired. Another nine hours in New York City, working in the madness that is Midtown as a fact-checker at a fashion magazine. All day long, I researched and confirmed information relating to beauty, fashion and celebrity, and, at least once a day, suffered an editor who was openly annoyed that I'd discovered an error. Then, the crush of the rush-hour subway, and a dinner obligation I had to fulfill before heading home to my cat.

essay on race and racism

Karen Good Marable is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been featured in publications like The Undefeated and The New Yorker. Courtesy of Karen Good Marable hide caption

The train doors opened and I turned the corner to walk up the stairs. Coming down were two girls — free, white and in their 20s . They were dancing as they descended, complete with necks rolling, mouths pursed — a poor affectation of black girls — and rapping as they passed me:

Now I ain't sayin she a golddigger/But she ain't messin' with no broke niggas!

That last part — broke niggas — was actually less rap, more squeals that dissolved into giggles. These white girls were thrilled to say the word publicly — joyously, even — with the permission of Kanye West.

I stopped, turned around and stared at them. I envisioned kicking them both squarely in their backs. God didn't give me telekinetic powers for just this reason. I willed them to turn around and face me, but they did not dare. They bopped on down the stairs and onto the platform, not evening knowing the rest of the rhyme.

Listen: I'm a black woman from the South. I was born in the '70s and raised by parents — both educators — who marched for their civil rights. I never could get used to nigga being bandied about — not by the black kids and certainly not by white folks. I blamed the girls' parents for not taking over where common sense had clearly failed. Hell, even radio didn't play the nigga part.

I especially blamed Kanye West for not only making the damn song, but for having the nerve to make nigga a part of the damn hook.

Life in NYC is full of moments like this, where something happens and you wonder if you should speak up or stay silent (which can also feel like complicity). I am the type who will speak up . Boys (or men) cussing incessantly in my presence? Girls on the train cussing around my 70-year-old mama? C'mon, y'all. Do you see me? Do you hear yourselves? Please. Stop.

But on this day, I just didn't feel like running down the stairs to tap those girls on the shoulder and school them on what they damn well already knew. On this day, I just sighed a great sigh, walked up the stairs, past the turnstiles and into the night.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

When I was 5 or 6, my mother asked me a question: "Does anyone ever make fun of you for the color of your skin?"

This surprised me. I was born to a Mexican woman who had married an Anglo man, and I was fairly light-skinned compared to the earth-brown hue of my mother. When she asked me that question, I began to understand that I was different.

essay on race and racism

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a visiting assistant professor of ethics at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. Courtesy of Robyn Henderson-Espinoza hide caption

Following my parents' divorce in the early 1980s, I spent a considerable amount of time with my father and my paternal grandparents. One day in May of 1989, I was sitting at my grandparents' dinner table in West Texas. I was 12. The adults were talking about the need for more laborers on my grandfather's farm, and my dad said this:

"Mexicans are lazy."

He called the undocumented workers he employed on his 40 acres "wetbacks." Again and again, I heard from him that Mexicans always had to be told what to do. He and friends would say this when I was within earshot. I felt uncomfortable. Why would my father say these things about people like me?

But I remained silent.

It haunts me that I didn't speak up. Not then. Not ever. I still hear his words, 10 years since he passed away, and wonder whether he thought I was a lazy Mexican, too. I wish I could have found the courage to tell him that Mexicans are some of the hardest-working people I know; that those brown bodies who worked on his property made his lifestyle possible.

As I grew in experience and understanding, I was able to find language that described what he was doing: stereotyping, undermining, demonizing. I found my voice in the academy and in the movement for black and brown lives.

Still, the silence haunts me.

Channing Kennedy

My 20s were defined in no small part by a friendship with a guy I never met. For years, over email and chat, we shared everything with each other, and we made great jokes. Those jokes — made for each other only — were a foundational part of our relationship and our identities. No matter what happened, we could make each other laugh.

essay on race and racism

Channing Kennedy is an Oakland-based writer, performer, media producer and racial equity trainer. Courtesy of Channing Kennedy hide caption

It helped, also, that we were slackers with spare time, but eventually we both found callings. I started working in the social justice sector, and he gained recognition in the field of indie comics. I was proud of my new job and approached it seriously, if not gracefully. Before I took the job, I was the type of white dude who'd make casually racist comments in front of people I considered friends. Now, I had laid a new foundation for myself and was ready to undo the harm I'd done pre-wokeness.

And I was proud of him, too, if cautious. The indie comics scene is full of bravely offensive work: the power fantasies of straight white men with grievances against their nonexistent censors, put on defiant display. But he was my friend, and he wouldn't fall for that.

One day he emailed me a rough script to get my feedback. At my desk, on a break from deleting racist, threatening Facebook comments directed at my co-workers, I opened it up for a change of pace.

I got none. His script was a top-tier, irredeemable power fantasy — sex trafficking, disability jokes, gendered violence, every scene's background packed with commentary-devoid, racist caricatures. It also had a pop culture gag on top, to guarantee clicks.

I asked him why he'd written it. He said it felt "important." I suggested he shelve it. He suggested that that would be a form of censorship. And I realized this: My dear friend had created a racist power fantasy about dismembering women, and he considered it bravely offensive.

I could have said that there was nothing brave about catering to the established tastes of other straight white comics dudes. I could have dropped any number of half-understood factoids about structural racism, the finishing move of the recently woke. I could have just said the jokes were weak.

Instead, I became cruel to him, with a dedication I'd previously reserved for myself.

Over months, I redirected every bit of our old creativity. I goaded him into arguments I knew would leave him shaken and unable to work. I positioned myself as a surrogate parent (so I could tell myself I was still a concerned ally) then laughed at him. I got him to escalate. And, privately, I told myself it was me who was under attack, the one with the grievance, and I cried about how my friend was betraying me.

I wanted to erase him (I realized years later) not because his script offended me, but because it made me laugh. It was full of the sense of humor we'd spent years on — not the jokes verbatim, but the pacing, structure, reveals, go-to gags. It had my DNA and it was funny. I thought I had become a monster-slayer, but this comic was a monster with my hands and mouth.

After years as the best of friends and as the bitterest of exes, we finally had a chance to meet in person. We were little more than acquaintances with sunk costs at that point, but we met anyway. Maybe we both wanted forgiveness, or an apology, or to see if we still had some jokes. Instead, I lectured him about electoral politics and race in a bar and never smiled.

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Anti-Racism Resources

  • Introduction
  • Anti-racism at UD
  • Understanding Racism
  • Understanding White Privilege & White Supremacy Culture
  • Explorations of Race and Racism
  • Community Change
  • Intersectionality
  • Personal Anti-racist Development
  • BIPOC Lived Experiences
  • Racism in Science
  • Essays on Race
  • Selected Media
  • Support for Black, Indigenous and People of Color
  • Additional Resources
  • Anti-Racist Pedagogy Research Guide This link opens in a new window

Articles & Essays on Race

  • 5 Japanese-American Women Activists Left Out of U.S. History Books
  • 10 Native women you should have learned about in history class
  • 9 Essayists of Color You Should Know About
  • I’m Latino. I’m Hispanic. And they’re different, so I drew a comic to explain,
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Outside view of Roesch Library


SCOTUS Says You Can Discuss Race in Your College Essay. Should You?

The us supreme court banned colleges’ affirmative action admission practices, raising a question about students writing about race in their college essay.

Photo: A young, tan woman with curly hair pulled back in a ponytail sits on a couch crossed-legged as she types on her silver laptop. She wears a yellow shirt and jeans as she sits in front of a bright window.

Although the Supreme Court says college application essays may discuss race and disadvantage, BU experts say inauthentic or traumatic recollections won’t cut it. Photo by Delmaine Donson/iStock

Should You Discuss Race in Your College Essay?

“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.” — Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

“The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. …Universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”—Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

Confused? So are many in higher education. When the United States Supreme Court sacked affirmative action racial preferences in June, Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion, while spotlighting applicants’ personal essays, also put vague guardrails around their use. And anyway, not every young person who has suffered racial discrimination wants to revisit it in their essay, that critical part of applying to college where students tell their story in their voice. 

After the SCOTUS decision, the advice from Boston University admissions and college guidance experts is this: your story must always be authentic. It can be about discrimination or other challenges met and dealt with, but it need not be. And it shouldn’t be , if writing about it means revisiting traumatic experiences.

“The essay for us is just going to continue to be as important as it always was,” notwithstanding the new legal landscape, says Kelly Walter (Wheelock’81), BU dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment. She has discussed the ruling with the University’s legal office, she says, and her office has tweaked BU’s two essay question options applicants must choose from. (The University also asks potential future Terriers to complete the Common Application for college, which has its own essay requirement.) The tweaks were partly in response to the court ruling, Walter says, but also to ensure that the questions conveyed to students “what BU stood for, and that we value diversity. We thought it was very important to put that out there front and center, and for them to be able to specifically respond to our commitment, our values, as it relates to one of these two essay questions.” 

Those questions are:

Reflect on a social or community issue that deeply resonates with you. Why is it important to you, and how have you been involved in addressing or raising awareness about it? What about being a student at BU most excites you? How do you hope to contribute to our campus community?

While the chief justice exhorted students to share discrimination episodes in answering such questions, recent alum and current student Erika Decklar (Sargent’22, SPH’24) says that may not be comfortable for some. She is an advisor with BU Admissions College Advising Corps (CAC-BU) , which gives college application counseling to low-income and other marginalized high schoolers.

“In my experience,” Decklar says, “students from marginalized backgrounds gravitate towards writing college essays on traumatic experiences, whether they are comfortable sharing these experiences with admissions counselors or not. We have always advised and encouraged students to write about a topic that highlights their strengths, personalities, and passions—whether it is a ‘resiliency’ essay or an essay about their culture, values, or a unique passion.”

After the SCOTUS ruling, Decklar says, her advice to students has not changed. “We should continue motivating students to write about a passion, something that makes them unique, but not coach them to write about their traumatic experiences.” 

Katie Hill, who directs CAC-BU, says applicants sharing in their essays what makes them special “does not require them revisiting their pain. If students so choose, we can help them write about their families and cultures, what is beautiful and makes them proud to be” of that culture.

Students from marginalized backgrounds gravitate towards writing college essays on traumatic experiences, whether they are comfortable sharing these experiences with admissions counselors or not. Erika Deklar (Sargent’22, SPH’24)

But what BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) students do not need, Hill says, is to hear from their advisors that in order to get into college, they need to open themselves up beyond their comfortable boundaries.

Walter agrees that an applicant’s story need not be an unrelenting nightmare. It’s true that some of them “are sharing things about their personal lives that I’m not sure I would have seen 20 years ago,” she says. “Students are certainly talking about their sexual identity in their essays. And some will say to us, ‘I’m telling you this [about my identity], and my parents don’t know yet.’” 

But she can reel off the opening lines from three of her favorite essays over the years that were hardly gloomy. One began, Geeks come in many varieties. “We laughed. It makes you want to keep reading,” she says. Then there was the woman who started, Life is short, and so am I.  

The third: By day, Louis is my trusty companion; by night, my partner in crime. “Doesn’t that make you want to read more and find out who or what Louis is?” Walter asks. (He was the applicant’s first car, a metaphor for this woman’s passion for the independence it conveyed, preparing her for the next step of going to BU, where she indeed matriculated.)

The essay is so important because it’s a given that applicants to BU can manage the academics here. “We have 80,000 students applying for admission to Boston University [annually],” Walter says, “and I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of them can do the work academically. We’re also shaping and building a class.

“For some, it may be leadership. For some, it may be their cultural background. For others, it might be writing for the Daily Free Press. We really want to think about a wide variety of students in our first-year class.” The essay fills in blanks about applicants for admission, along with teacher and counselor recommendations, their high school activities, and their internships or jobs. 

That’s not to say there aren’t lethal don’ts to avoid, most of them emphasizing the necessity of having a proofreader.

“We often get references to ‘Boston College,’” says Patrice Oppliger , a College of Communication assistant professor of communication, who solicits faculty reviews of applicants to COM’s mass communication, advertising, and public relations master’s program before making a decision.

And need we say, do your own work? Walter recalls an essay from a couple of years back where the applicant discussed life in Warren Towers. “And I was like, wait, you couldn’t have lived in Warren Towers, you’re not here yet. And it became very clear that the parent, who was an alum—I think in an effort to help—was telling her story. And somehow no one [in that family] caught that.”

So writing about dealing with discrimination, race-based or otherwise, is fine if it’s not traumatic for you to revisit— and if it’s authentic. Authenticity also includes avoiding over-reliance on artificial intelligence in crafting your essay. According to Admissions’ AI statement ,

If you opt to use these tools at any point while writing your essays, they should only be used to support your original ideas rather than to write your essays in their entirety. As potential future Terriers, we expect all applicants to adhere to the same standards of academic honesty and integrity as our current students. When representing the words or ideas of another in their original work, students should properly credit the source.

“We want to think about not just who will thrive academically at BU,” Walter says, “but also who will enrich the University community and make diverse contributions.”

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The resiliency essay is the archetypical admissions essay of our time, but it has its drawbacks: https//www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/against-land-acknowledgements-native-american/620820/

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