Written by Sarah Chown
Health and social inequities along lines of race abound in British Columbia and throughout Canada. These inequities show up both in the general population, as well as LGBTQ+ communities. In addition to these patterns of racial inequities shown in epidemiological data, qualitative research and personal experiences reveal these inequities too. Despite the significant evidence of the tangible ways race impacts health and wellness, mainstream conversations often shy away from conversations about race.
Race throughout history
The rise of medicine and biological sciences in Europe led to the creation of previously unnamed categories and identities, including, for example, homosexuality. The development of purportedly objective tools informed the creation of racial categories, determined by measuring of body features, including eyes, ears, the nose, and skin pigmentation. These racial groupings were largely made without the input of the people being categorized, and without consideration of shared social or cultural practices, or shared identity. This practice was taken up in the context of ongoing colonization led by Europeans. Globally, these socially constructed racial categories created difference that was not previously recognized, and was also used to foster conflict.
Increasingly, today’s scholars believe race was constructed specifically "to divide and rank human groups, persistently “discovering” the natural inferiority of non-Europeans, as well as Jews, women, and other politically, economically, and socially vulnerable groups” (Harding, 2006, p. 19). The invention of race was fundamentally linked with the creation and reinforcement of a race-based power hierarchy, in which White Europeans hold the most power, and the project of colonization. Despite the previous convictions of scholars, biologists and anthropologists today are in agreement that race does not have a biological or genetic basis.
Pathways to racial inequities
While race is socially constructed, it has become an uncontested factor in health outcomes, and is a contemporary reality. Explanations of health inequities resulting from race and/or ethnicity often focus on individual behaviours, and overlook the many factors that shape and constrain these behaviours. These explanations leave the fundamental driver of these inequities – racism – unexamined, and thus do not challenge the structural ways these inequities are produced.
Understanding the structural level factors that create inequities is important in order to create long-lasting change. In their research focused on race and health inequities, Chae et al. (2011) proposed three categories in which race shapes day-to-day life: conscious or subconscious acceptance of racist narratives about people of colour (internalized racism), interactions with other people (personally-mediated racism), and the distribution of power in politics, economics, and social services (institutional forms of racism). These forms of racism occur in the context of historical and ongoing White oppression directed towards people of colour.
Within gay and bisexual men’s communities, these dynamics play out in many ways, including within sexual contexts. Personally-mediated examples of racism include online profile statements indicating race-based criteria (e.g. “No Asians”), race-based assumptions about sexual positions (e.g. assuming Black people to be tops), and the fetishization of men of colour. Research from the Imagine Men's Health Study (IMF) in Toronto documented several of these instances, with participants demonstrating both frustration with these experiences, and strategies to resist internalizing these messages about their bodies. Each of these personally-mediated forms of racism reflect the ways that men of colour are often hypersexualized or desexualized among individuals within gay communities, and at an institutional level in media and porn. These experiences of racism also contribute to internalized racism.
In a critical discourse analysis, Han (2008, p. 19) cites Ayres (1999), who writes, “Intellectually, I know that this inability to feel attracted to other Asian men is a form of internalized racism. I know that at some basic psychic level I am unable to come to terms with my own body…” Here, we see an example of how dominant discourses can be internalized by individuals. Similarly, a participant in the IMH study said, “How you don’t think when you look in the mirror that “I’m hot”, because ... you never see yourself reflected anywhere
.” (Brennan et al., p. 14). These experiences of men of colour both indicate the relationship between forms of personally-mediated, institutional, and internalized racism.
Unlearning our racism
As a White settler, I am complicit in the system of racism and the inequities it produces for people of colour. I work to recognize how racism shapes my perceptions and interactions within gay communities, and identify opportunities to challenge racism. In unlearning racism, I recognize the uncomfortable ways that being White extends me privilege, and contributes to the power dynamics that shape my interactions. For those of us who are White, these are a necessary, if uncomfortable, starting places for conversations about race. For me, recognizing this privilege helps me to focus on my role as a listener and the need to make choices in my life and work to find, amplify, and meaningfully engage, with queer people of colour (QPOC).
An opportunity to listen to QPOC is to read, consider, and work towards implementing the recommendations in the newly-released report, Speaking Up: for the health of Queer People of Colour. This report, a result of a community forum among QPOC, includes six recommendations for health and social service providers. Far from the theoretical connections between lived realities of racism and health inequities, this report identifies tangible ways to lessen the exclusion and discrimination too often experienced by QPOC. This report is a must read, particularly for providers in the Vancouver area.
If we are to meaningfully engage with QPOC, we need to get over the silence that too often surrounds issues of race and racism, be willing to curb our shared, White defensiveness, and consistently hold each other accountable for challenging racism.
Brennan, David, Souleymanov, Rusty, Asakura, Kenta & Members of the Imagine Men’s Health Research Team – 2013. Colour Matters: Body Image, Racism, and Well-being among Gay and Bisexual Men of Colour in Toronto. Available online from http://www.catie.ca/sites/default/files/Colour%20Matters_IMH%20REPORT%202013%20Final.pdf
Chae, David, Nuru-Jeter, Amani, Lincoln, Karen & Francis, Darlene – 2011. Conceptualizing Racial Disparities in Health: Advancement of a Socio-Psychobiological Approach. Abstract available online from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/du-bois-review-social-science-research-on-race/article/conceptualizing-racial-disparities-in-health/42EC6DAC35EA034F4ADCAEE4C13A2FD8
Han, Chong-suk – 2008. No fats, femmes, or Asians: the utility of critical race theory in examining the role of gay stock stories in the marginalization of gay Asian men. Abstract available online from http://doi.org/10.1080/10282580701850355
Harding, Sandra – 2006. Thinking about Race and Science. In Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues.