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15 March 2023

Confronting racism denial: using stories to communicate across divides

Professor Camara Phyllis Jones believes that allegorical stories can help initiate conversations about systemic racism and its complexities.

A picture of a door with the word 'Closed' on it and text below that reads "Racism structures Open/Closed signs on our society.

Racism denial is a major obstacle to addressing health inequalities that result from systemic racism. Professor Camara Phyllis Jones, Visiting Leverhulme Professor at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, has been using allegories or teaching stories to help communicate the complexities of systemic racism to those who may not have experienced those realities.

In a public lecture at the Science Gallery London earlier this year, Professor Jones said: “Racism denial is operating in both of our nations – in the United States and in the United Kingdom – like a huge black hole in our national landscape, much like black holes in the universe.”

Racism denial is invisible and sucks the strength of society, she said. Thus, naming racism and communicating with those with privilege becomes important. Stories are a powerful tool to do this.

Professor Jones shared three allegories to help people comprehend the systemic nature of racism. The first is the ‘Dual Reality: A Restaurant Saga’ – to show that racism exists.

In this allegory, Professor Jones described a restaurant where people are enjoying a meal inside. They can see a sign on the door that reads ‘Open’. But to the hungry people waiting outside the restaurant, the sign reads ‘Closed’. The story highlights that people and communities may experience different realities.

To take the conversation further, Professor Jones shared the ‘Levels of Racism: a Gardener’s Tale’ allegory, which illustrates the working of structural racism and its historical nature.

A gardener plants seeds for red and pink variations of a flower in two pots – red in fertile soil and pink in old, rocky soil. She prefers the red flowers. Soon, the red flowers flourish and grow while the pink flowers struggle to bloom. For several growing seasons, she continues to plant the red seeds in fertile soil and pink in rocky soil. Finally, she concludes that her assumption about the red flowers was correct, and they are better than the pink flowers.

Professor Jones said that the separation into two kinds of soil represents historical injustice while the lack of action on the part of the gardener continued to perpetuate the inequity.

Finally, Professor Jones argued that racism needs to be addressed at a systemic, rather than individual level through the ‘Cement Dust in Our Lungs’ allegory. If a local cement factory polluted the air with cement dust, the best way to tackle it would be to address the source of the pollution rather than treating individuals.

She used this to argue that rather than trying to tackle racism by individuals, we need to focus on working towards dismantling the structures that perpetuate inequalities.

Professor Jones shared her allegories in the second of a three-part lecture series on ‘Anti-Racism & Health’ held at the Science Gallery London on 16 January 2023. In Part 1 of the series, she discussed factors that contribute to race-based disparities in health outcomes.     

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In this story

Camara Phyllis  Jones

Leverhulme Visiting Professor