Black students discuss race, identity, health disparities, and academia

By Katy Stites

Published on June 30, 2020

A group of Black women who are students at the University of Iowa College of Public Health came together recently for a conversation about structural racism and how it shows up in public health and different corners of their lives, including academia. The conversation was recorded for an episode of the student-run podcast “From the Front Row” titled “Racing to the Root of Health Disparity: An Open and Heartfelt Discussion about Race, Health, and Identity.”

A portrait of Felicia Pieper of the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Felicia Pieper
A portrait of Chelsea Hicks of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Chelsea Hicks

The group included Toluwani Adekunle, Chelsea Hicks, Bikere Ikoba, Felicia Pieper, and the podcast host, Oge Chigbo.

They talked about what it means to be a Black woman in America, whether that means understanding firsthand the issues Black people have to face after moving here from another country, or constantly having to prove yourself because people question your voice and your value.

“We become the background sound, and the irony is that it’s called white noise,” Hicks said. “Until it reaches a sound that’s so loud it becomes annoying. That is when people start to hear and react and that’s my constant struggle. The repetition of myself over and over.”

portrait of Oge Chigbo
Oge Chigbo
A portrait of Bikere Ikoba of the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Bikere Ikoba
Toluwani Adekunle
Toluwani Adekunle

All the women expressed how challenging it can be to be a Black woman in this country.

“I think we’re all really incredibly proud of our identities and have so much passion and joy in who we are and what we bring to the table as well, so while being who we are can be quite exhausting and we have to deal with a lot at the same time, it comes with immense pride and joy,” Pieper said.

They discussed racism as a social determinant of health and related determinants of health, including generational wealth, where people live, and implicit medical bias.

“Being a Black woman, your voice may not be heard just because people have a preconceived implicit bias about the pain levels you might be going through and your level of education about your level of pain,” Adekunle said.

Race-related public health issues are apparent in the wake of COVID-19, with Black people disproportionately getting infected, having severe cases, and dying from the disease.

“It’s something we absolutely need to address, but at the same time, if we’re not keeping in mind that Black folks are living in communities where the air is toxic, and we’re not keeping in mind maybe an issue with the police has come up and the whole community’s health is suffering, we’re not solving the problem,” Pieper said.

Adekunle spoke about the lasting trauma that stems from acts of police shootings of unarmed Black men, referencing ongoing research from Harvard University that estimates it takes three months for Black communities to mentally recover from each of these events.

“You think about how much time we actually have to recover from those incidents —  probably not enough if we need up to three months, because before three months is up, there is another incident occurring,” she said. “So we are carrying the bondage from these incidents, the mental bondage from these incidents. And we know about the genetic effects of trauma. We know how trauma can be encoded in your DNA and can be passed down to your future generations.”

The group discussed the statement “I can’t breathe” as a way to understand how Black people often experience living in America. That includes how they feel in academia and the constant struggle to discuss racism with their peers and superiors, with the threat of retaliation around every corner.

“How do I navigate this space and navigate around all of these, what feels like secret landmines of fragility around me and still thrive and succeed and excel so that the next generation of beautiful, strong, confident, amazing Black women can enter into these spaces and be more free than even I feel right now? What does that look like?” Ikoba asked.

“I want to teach them that you need to stand up for yourself,” Chigbo added. “If people will not give you the space that you earned, you collect it. You go and you demand it, and you take it. Don’t let people degrade you. You walk out. There’s something better. You will find something. And that’s the kind of role model I want to be. So I’m trying to do that with my own life. It’s hard, but you have to push. And I’m just like, ‘God, this is what kills. This is stress. This is what kills people.’ We should not be fighting like this for common decency.”

“We have to talk about [racism], because without talking about it we can’t get past it,” Adekunle said. “And so when we talk about it, we’re scared of retaliation, we are scared that we’re going to get fired. We are scared that our paper won’t get published. We are scared that we’re going to lose our position within a certain space. And so yes, we cannot breathe and we want to breathe. It’s time. I feel like Black people should be given that space to breathe in this country in every aspect.”

“I feel like often we’re told in academia and other areas to negate our experiences as if they aren’t enough, and that’s just a lie,” Hicks said. “Our experiences are more than enough.”

Listen to the podcast online to hear the group’s full discussion:

Podcast page:

Episode transcript: