To be heard you have to listen

“Health Equity, Racism, and Dialogue”

By Lena Hatchett

I started writing this commentary as a reflection on my trip to the National Health and Prosperity Assembly, in August.  It was a feel good reflection on the power of listening.  As the presidential campaign has sunk to new lows, I’d like to share my views about the complicated relationship of identity politics…
The shift in my mindset actually started the night before I embraced the 450 Health and Prosperity leaders at the assembly.  I was looking to catch up on the news in the hotel restaurant and from my seat, I couldn’t see the TV screen well. Another guest struck up a conversation with the question, “CNN or Fox?”   These words said something about my identity and values that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with a stranger. On the surface, this response was a weak-minded cop out.  But in my heart, it is the kind of measured response that has kept me safe in a world where my beliefs are not worthy of the same freedoms, dignity and respect as White Americans.  As a Black middle income woman, there is some awareness that my race and class might exist in America, but too few White Americans have actually had meaningful, honest conversation about anything (including politics, racism, and sexism) with an American like me.

I took a long pause, as this storyline unfolded in my head and the stranger pressed the issue, “You’re not missing anything, Fox says Hillary’s a liar and CNN says Trump’s a racist.  I was slowly coming to grips with this new reality that Black and White strangers could discuss racism and politics openly. Right then, I had one of two choices.  I could lean slowly back in my chair and politely smile to end the exchange. Or, I could lean in to an open and honest conversation, like the ones I’ve been trained to use to promote equity from the 100 million lives initiative.  With some courage I said “CNN, I happen to agree with fact that Trump is a racist.”  My companion was red faced but quick to say Hillary lies about everything.  I’m a 5’4 Black woman in my pink twin-set, but this 6’ White guy sporting a long beard, bald head and tattoos seriously looked afraid of me.  In that moment, he was afraid of me and he stopped being a Trump supporter and I felt some compassion for his unknown fear.  I found respect for his willingness to start a difficult conversation.  The details, facts and different realities did not matter. We agreed that job creation was a priority for economic growth and disagreed about which industries were worthy of investment.  He talked about investing in steel and climate change being a made-up problem with regulations that benefited special interests.  It was hard to listen to these talking points, yet I forced myself to hear.  His major themes were going back to the past and my issues were focused on new future technologies and opportunities.

Despite this free spirited banter on politics, the conversation was actually hiding where we started about Trump’s racism.  For me, this moment in a hotel restaurant reflected racism in America.  If we listen to CNN or Fox, I have to believe he is a White ignorant racist for supporting Trump and he has to believe I’m a Black lawless liberal.  My companion believes that American racism is something you can choose to ignore and I believe it is something that I’m forced to deal with.  Our values and beliefs on all the issues didn’t move, but this moment of honesty and agreement to listen to each other is a true way forward.  The heart of our current political hatred for the other side did not start with Trump and it will not end when he loses.  In the course of an hour my friend changed from being a Trump supporter to a fellow American with different views.  What is your strategy to support democracy?

Lena Hatchett, PhD
, is Assistant Professor of Bioethics and Health Policy in the Department of Medical Education at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.  She is also Executive Lead, Proviso Partners for Health

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