I’ve been struggling with exactly what to say as I’ve watched the events of the last few days unfold.

I actively chose not to participate in the blackout on Tuesday because I didn’t want to just jump on the bandwagon and post a black square to symbolically show my support without doing anything more substantial to back it up. I’m excited that more people seem to be behind the movement than ever, but I hope it’s not just a phase, that people aren’t speaking out just because its trendy. Or that people weren’t looking for an excuse to get out of the house after being cooped up so long due to Covid-19 quarantines.

Speaking of Covid, I hope that people are staying safe during protests. Both from disease and from physical harm. I’ve seen a lot of people wearing masks, which is good. (Better than the reopening protests at least). The reality is that racism is a public health crisis. Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by this disease (and others) as a result of the systemic racism that has shaped our nation. It’s one of the many MANY reasons why people are speaking out.

As an up and coming public health professional, I’m alarmed by the misuse of the phrase “contact tracing” by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to explain what it is doing to investigate protesters they have arrested. I want to believe that the commissioner was just trying to make an analogy relevant to other current issues and events fresh on the public’s mind. But it was an unnecessary appropriation of the word. Causing people to associate public health efforts with investigation into their personal and private lives helps create mistrust in epidemiologists who rely on trust in order to minimize the spread of disease within the community.

The way in which a public health issue is presented can have an impact on racism as well. We all saw it early in the year as people referred to Covid-19 as “China virus”. Racial slurs were yelled at people and they were physically attacked by others who feared them purely because of the way they looked. As if being of Asian decent magically made them infected. Things reached a boiling point over discussions we were having at Iowa State. The vet school was censured last semester due to its inability to appropriately address student concerns about inclusivity. I didn’t find it too surprising. I look around my vet school classroom and I laugh at the irony of the diversity essay I had to write on my application.

The most recent data indicates that 90% of veterinary medicine students are white, while only 5% are Hispanic, 2% are African American, 1% are Asian/Pacific Islander and less that 1% are Native American. The question should be, why are these numbers so low and what can we do to change that and create a community of professionals that better reflect the population that we serve? This blog post points out that it is mostly a systemic problem, that the applicant pool underrepresents these groups due to lack of resources and role models. I’ve been listening to some of the stories of my colleagues of color the past few days. Stories of being turned away for shadowing because of their skin color. Mistrust in their intelligence and abilities because they are Black. Clients reflecting their own racist thoughts onto their pets. I’ve seen it firsthand with the few POC I’ve had the blessing to work with in this profession. So while I will undoubtedly face the men who think I can’t be a doctor because I’m a woman, as well as the clients who tell me I look too young to be making medical decisions about their pet, I will never have the added burden of also being a person of color. That is my privilege.

I want to do what I can to use that privilege to help others in the community. I don’t claim to be a perfect ally, but there is one thing that I have heard time and time again from my exhausted friends who shouldn’t have to bear the added emotional burden. Please don’t ask POC to do the work for you by asking for resources that you can just as easily find yourself with a bit of effort.

Here is my compiled (but definitely not complete) list of things we can do to help:

The following is something I wrote to a friend months ago while reflecting specifically about what was happening at Iowa State.

In veterinary terms: you can’t expect an overweight dog to return to a healthy BCS overnight. It takes time and effort and it’s hard and sometimes you slip up. So you acknowledge your mistakes and you try not to make them again. You grow because you have learned.

Maybe this racial discussion is so ugly because change is actually going to finally happen. Historically, Iowa State is lacking in diversity, and that’s probably going to continue to be perpetuated if people don’t feel safe or welcome here because word travels and POC/LGBTQIA/other marginalized groups will not apply. Maybe we’re experiencing this discomfort because of progress. While the numbers are still very skewed toward a white population, the CVM class of 2022 demographics are more diverse than the years before us, both from a racial and LGBTQIA perspective. One of the main benefits of diversity is that working with people that come from different backgrounds allows for the sharing of experiences and the opportunity to learn from each other. An important aspect of that is the openness to conversations that are “awkward” or “uncomfortable”. This means being able to hear someone tell you that you offended them EVEN IF that was not your intent. On the flip side, it also means providing someone with the benefit of the doubt and allowing them to apologize, grow from the situation, and make changes in their behavior in the future.

I look back on this positive outlook I had on the situation and hope I was right. Maybe 2020 is the year. Not the year we thought we’d have. But the year we were finally uncomfortable enough to make lasting changes.

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