Utibe R. Essien, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, first became aware of his race in his college years.
Raised by Nigerian parents who came to the United States in their 20s, Essien said race was never a conversation in his home while growing up in New York City before moving into the middle class suburbs.
“My parents came to the states and didn’t think about race; we were just ‘people.’ They raised us in that way,” said Essien. “It wasn’t until I started getting into spaces where I was exposed to more Black people, when I was in college, that I was being ‘targeted’ for my race.”
Now, he says, race is the “obsession” of his life. With a career largely focused on research in health disparities, he said race is “something I think about in every moment.”
This summer, Essien and nearly 100 others from across the University of Pittsburgh, the UPMC and the greater community joined a virtual book club sponsored by the Department of Medicine Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The book selection: “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi.
(The New York Times bestselling author will also be serving as keynote speaker at Pitt’s upcoming Diversity Forum 2020, Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action.)
Anyone can be a racist, according to Kendi, regardless of the color of their skin. In “How to Be an Antiracist,” Kendi candidly offers his own personal story of adopting ideas of a racist and his journey to becoming an antiracist. Kendi argues the idea that people can either be racist or anti-racist; there is no space in between. Racists, he writes, are people who support racist policies through their actions, inactions or ideas; anti-racists actively confront racial inequalities and locate the roots of problems in people of power and in policies. In the book, he also provides tools on how people can live as an anti-racist and challenge racism on a daily basis.
Join the Diversity Book Club
The Department of Medicine Office of Diversity and Inclusion Diversity Book Club meets every other month, either on the second or fourth Wednesday of the month. The next book club meeting will take place on August 11 at 6 p.m. The next book selection: “So You Want To Talk about Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. Anyone is welcome to join.
Gathered over Zoom on June 24, Essien spoke with his small breakout group about how the book provides a “new language” when thinking about race and racism.
“The language is incredibly useful,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will ever not use the phrase ‘anti-racist’ and other language in this book anymore—especially in the academic and medical space.
The term Kendi introduces in his book—being an anti-racist—sets forth the idea that people can either be racist or anti-racist, and that there is no in between. He suggests that, to be anti-racist, people must actively combat racist systems and policies that infiltrate our society—and that being neutral isn’t enough.
Essien said, “I do think the new language allows us to not just say ‘we accept everyone, we are diverse and inclusive,’—but, rather, ‘we’re acting, practicing, thinking about our actions and working to stand against forms of bigotry.’”
Where it begins
Naudia Jonassaint, vice chair for diversity and inclusion in the Department of Medicine, hosted the virtual book club. She said the book club planned to use Kendi’s book to hold a conversation about racism before the country’s state of race relations reached the point they are today.
“So many things have happened societally—and we chose this book before things happened,” said Jonassaint, as she gave opening remarks at the book club meeting, referencing the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others at the hands of police.
Jonassaint also offered a personal reflection of her own: While she said she doesn’t remember her first experience with race, her young daughter’s experience is quite different.
“I do see my very dark-skinned daughter recognizing she’s Black. She’s understanding there’s a hierarchy in society around beauty, and that’s heartbreaking to me,” said Jonassaint. “She’s only four.”
Before separating into small groups, the participants learned the ground rules for the book club: be vulnerable; speak for yourself and your beliefs, not on behalf of others; and create a mutual respect of ideas.
“We are here tonight to share and respond. This is not the end of the growth process. It’s where it begins,” she said.
Kristen Ehrenberger, who just finished her fourth year of the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics program with UPMC Children’s Hospital, chose to participate in the book club to continue her journey in learning about race. She holds a PhD in the history of medicine, and in the fall will be joining the Department of Medicine and Division of Internal Medicine.
“I’ve been educating myself for several years by reading things that graduate school colleagues posted on Facebook. And I’m glad we’re reading this book,” she said.
Ehrenberger said she plans to use the book as course material in a lecture she’ll be giving to third and fourth year medical students on race and racism this fall.
“Kendi did a wonderful job of interweaving his personal experience in with teaching about anti-racism. I appreciate that he opened up about times in his life that he’s not proud of—to show how he grew as an individual, and gives us concepts to help us grow, too,” she said.
Like Essien, Ehrenberger said she appreciated the new language provided in the book—including the idea of a being anti-racist.
“The concept of being anti-racist is relatively new. I don’t really recall that having been a common phrase until the last couple months; I wasn’t familiar with it before,” she said.
Ehrenberger also elaborated on how Kendi, in the book, debunks the theory that reverse racism doesn’t exist. “It seemed to me that Kendi turned that idea completely on its head. It’s not literally black and white. Everyone has some power over someone else,” she said.
On what she’d ask Kendi, if she had the opportunity to meet him in person? “I’m curious what he’s going to do next.”
Like a cancer
One of the talking points for the book club was reflecting on Kendi’s comparison of racism to cancer.
A survivor of cancer himself, Kendi writes in the book: “Our world is suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage IV. … the metastatic cancer has been spreading, contracting and threatening to kill the American body.”
Participants of the book club, many of whom are physicians, discussed the idea of how people are killing society by not understanding and digesting racism.
“This was the hardest part of the book to read,” said Essien. “I think Kendi is just a few months older than me, and he had metastatic cancer. It was a powerful section to read.”
One participant said she especially appreciated how Kendi made the analogy to his personal fight with cancer. “Metastatic cancer can’t be cured,” she said. “It’s just a different way of thinking about it.”
To wrap-up the discussion, the book club convened as a whole to share their smaller group’s reflections. And to conclude, Jonassaint offered a final thought.
“People are watching us,” she said. “We’re not going to be our best anti-racist self every day, but if we believe in equity and justice, I think we can fight this fight. And I don’t think we should give up.”
Hear more from Ibram X. Kendi
Join Ibram X. Kendi at Pitt’s Diversity Forum 2020, a free event open to the public from July 28-30.
The forum, Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action, is a first-of-its kind virtual event at Pitt with a goal of equipping participants with the tools to make the greater Pittsburgh region a more inclusive place.
Kendi’s keynote discussion will be moderated by Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of Pitt’s School of Education.
Also set to speak at the forum:
- Jasiri X, Pittsburgh-based rapper and activist
- Leigh Patel, associate dean of equity and justice at Pitt’s School of Education
- Darren Whitfield, assistant professor of social work and psychiatry at the School of Social Work and Department of Psychiatry
- anupama jain, executive director of Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission
The forum is free and open to the public; register to secure your spot.