This semester, I am taking a fascinating class called “Discrimination and Health.” It explores the myriad ways in which experiencing unequal or biased treatment in society can have direct negative impact on both mental and physical health. The course examines this phenomenon on multiple levels, from individual interactions (i.e. a doctor improperly treating a patient based on stereotypes; the effects of experiencing daily racism, sexism, or homophobia on one’s wellbeing), to broader systemic manifestations of bias (i.e. physical and mental tolls of living in the unsafe neighborhoods that low-income families and people of color are frequently relegated to; hospital policies that subtly exclude the needs of culturally-diverse families.) Each week we read and discuss several research articles clustered around a particular topic; my brain has come to eagerly anticipate chewing through the banquet of food for thought that is always provided.
I have found the material nothing short of electrifying and perspective-shifting: a revolutionary validation of some things I felt I’d “known”, intuitively, for years, and yet so much more to this particular puzzle than I could have imagined before. Although it’s obvious to me now that scientists, psychologists and scholars have focused on this for years, amassed a good body of research, and organized professionally in the name of advocacy and public health, I had no idea that all of this existed, formally, prior to taking the course. As a budding mental health counselor who’s been engaged in anti-oppression and social justice work for years, I’m shocked that it took me so long to locate this body of work; yet this reaffirms to me just how far out of general public consciousness these notions are. Much of our class discussions have come back around to why this is: the slow reluctance of society to change; innate aspects of human nature; dominant group members’ fears and perceptions of “losing” power? Does it have to do with various groups’ financial/political interests at stake, or a de-prioritization of ethics? Are we merely overwhelmed by the magnitude of systemic and institutional change required to address the many-pronged and deep-rooted manifestations of social discrimination?
Such questions-- getting at why people, society, and the world are as they are— can also quickly become much larger questions of meaning and existential concern. I know that being able to participate in these rewarding discussions hinges on my ability to suspend and reevaluate my own beliefs: a willingness to accept others’ experiences as real even when they appear to contradict what I’ve known to be true, and to expand my conceptualizations to accommodate both of our realities. To all of these big questions, I don’t have The Answer, nor will I learn it in this class. There is not one easy, apparent answer to be had. But what we can do in the meantime, as classmates and as human beings, is to learn from each other and learn to love the process, as opposed to fretting about finding the perfect solution. We are learning to tolerate the anxiety of not knowing for sure, of not having one end-all-and-be-all correct answer. This requires certain qualities of openness and flexibility, as well enough self-security to not view others’ perspectives and experiences as threats. Surrendering belief in the absolute, sole right-ness of one’s own perspective requires bravery, but by respectfully allowing space for others’ full realities to exist alongside our own, we are all strengthened, and we become connected as humanity.