Does the word “racism” contribute to conversation? Or is it so politically charged and divisive that it causes people to tune you out?

The question raises a major challenge for those of us who seek to address health disparities. On one hand, racism is fundamental to understanding why disparities exist and persist. I would go as far as to state that in most race disparities research, race is actually a proxy measure for exposure to racism. On the other hand, the word “racism” makes some people uncomfortable, causing them to become defensive or simply block out your message.  

Over the years I have received feedback and advice on both sides of this question. I have been told that I should use “racism” more in my lectures, and it has also been suggested to me that I should limit or eliminate use of the word. I have been told that I don’t use “racism” in my writing, but the fact is I have published about a half dozen articles with the word “racism” in the title. I suppose no matter how one communicates, they are always heard through the filter of the listener’s values and beliefs. If a listener believes that race is racism, then using the word will communicate to that listener. If the listener believes racism is a thing of the past, then the use of the word could stifle communication.

Conducting research and communicating about race and health is extremely complex. Ideally, advancing scientific discovery requires holding beliefs and ideas up to scrutiny and judging them to be correct or incorrect, dispassionately trusting the data to lead us to the truth. But truth telling alone does not necessarily lead to persuasion.

This brings to mind an interesting interaction I had in my class a few years ago. I had just completed a lecture about how race was a social and political construction and not a biological concept. I pointed out how definitions of race in the United States have changed many times over the years, and how people classified into one race group here could be classified into different race groups in other countries. I explained that even if there were once genes that were found only in one race group (which I do not concede), then after several centuries of people from different race groups having children together those genes certainly would not still be contained only to one group. I am certain I never used the word “racism” in the lecture.

After class, a student approached me tentatively. I asked her if she had a question or comment; she did. Her comment: “I still believe race is biology.”

Editor’s note: Thomas LaVeist, PhD, is founding director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions and is the William C. and Nancy F. Richardson Professor in Health Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is the chair of the National Advisory Committee for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College.