covid19 · racism

Systemic racism looks like the death of George Floyd, denying the science of masks, and our perspectives on dietary privilege

It is Saturday night as I write this, and two of my favorite communities in all the world are on fire. Sparked by yet another police killing of a black man, George Floyd, fueled in no doubt by frustrations at the dangerously inept federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, protesters in my former adopted hometown of Minneapolis have been venting their rage at racial injustice. This wildfire has rapidly spread across the country, and we are under curfew here in Portland, as the city braces for a second night of violence. A lack of trust in science and experts has allowed this to happen. It’s fed the flames of division.

Lack of trust in experts has provided the permission structure necessary for white people to disregard the overwhelming research that supports the fact that we are dealing with generations of intentional policies and decisions designed to select who gets to pull on the levers of power. Generations of politicians, religious leaders, and other folks with power have created alternative interpretations of “the facts” to support their preconceptions that they are in power because they’ve earned it and because they are better suited to the work. Whole branches of pseudoscience were developed to justify the white, Euroamerican position of privilege, dehumanizing people of other backgrounds, identifying them as more dangerous, more violent, and less trustworthy. The entire field of statistics was developed to create mathematical models that justified placing white people as more civilized than other races.(1)

More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are debating the science of wearing a mask and how to safely reopen businesses. This is not separate from the issues of racial injustice above; rather, it is a direct example of the systemic practices that intentionally disproportionately harm people of color in the United States. Covid-19 is more dangerous for Americans of color–they are more likely to get sick, more likely to die, and more likely to face the economic hardships brought on by this new depression. When Trump and his followers insist on going about their business without wearing masks, they are endangering the health and livelihoods of their fellow Americans of color to a higher degree than for white Americans. They frame it as an argument about the science and about economic policy, but it is really about power and deciding whose lives and livelihoods are going to be prioritized.

And many of us people of privilege are asking ourselves what we can do. In the long run, of course, I will be voting for Biden for president. Although he wasn’t the person I was most excited to support, there’s no question that his administration would be the compassionate and science-based organization we need.

But we need to do more than show up in November; we need to use our positions of privilege to challenge the thinking of those around us when we witness a lack of science-based thinking. And this is when I connect all of this to our world of fitness. Regular readers will know that I’m pretty concerned about the preponderance of pseudoscience in the health and fitness sphere. It is literally harming people every day. But even bigger than that, I believe that our support of pseudoscience, distrust of experts, and tribalism in these non-political spheres of our lives supports these same tendencies in politics and society as a whole. And I believe that this is a very dangerous mindset to allow to go unchallenged.

If we allow ourselves to be siloed to only vegan, only palio, and only organic camps, we are preparing our minds for other types of tribalism as well. If we distrust medical experts when they disagree with our rationales to avoid certain foods, we are making it more acceptable to distrust experts when they explain why we should wear masks. If we believe we are superior because we eschew all grains in our diet while we insist that this is why we are enjoying better health than those around us, then we are more apt to believe that other positions of privilege are due to our own good choices rather than the result of societal supports, generational wealth and uneven distribution of resources. We must challenge our own thinking and the thinking of those close to us, if we are going to change the world for the better for everyone.

Being scientific doesn’t mean we can’t make room for anecdotes. Indeed, the best science is informed by careful observation of anecdotes in search for patterns and plausible explanations. However, we must temper our own enthusiasm for our own perspectives with information and data from the larger picture–this is what science can be very good at that our own minds may not be. It can help us suss out larger patterns than we may be able to discern through our own experiences alone. The data are clear–wearing masks reduces the transmission of disease, people of color are perceived as more of a threat than white people under similar circumstances, there are many ways to eat healthfully, and privilege has life-or-death consequences every day.

We must push back on this unscientific thinking in our own communities, if we are going to help create a more equal world. I will continue to use my position of privilege to attend protests, where I will be perceived as less threatening than my peers of color. I will continue to give money to causes that lift up voices of color in education, politics and business. And I will push back on unscientific thinking and reflexive distrust of experts in fitness, nutrition and health amongst my friends and family. Only through agreement on the scientific truths in our world can we know justice and know peace.

Photo description: Orange and purple sunset over Portland skyrises, the Fremont bridge and Mt. Saint Helens in the background.

(1) I recommend you read the Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould, if you are interested in learning more of this fascinating and frustrating piece of pseudoscience history.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found discussing uncomfortable realities, picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

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