The Social Justice Coalition: Breaking Ouroboros

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Mialovena Exume ’24 and Nikkole Turgeon ’22

Written by Nikkole Turgeon ’22 and Mialovena Exume ’24 

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) began as a group of medical students in the Class of 2021 reading together. Our numbers grew; we began taking action, and now we are a student leadership group at the UVM Larner College of Medicine. It may come as a surprise, but many students in SJC had never done social justice work before medical school. You don’t need experience or expertise in the field to do this work. You need to be willing to make mistakes, be uncomfortable, check your privilege, check your ego, and be accomplices, not just allies. We recognize that many of our classmates are doing similar work and we don’t actually believe that we deserve the title of leader any more than they do. As such, we identify ourselves as organizers working towards antiracism.

From Nikkole Turgeon ‘22

In his article, “When black people are in pain, white people just join a book club,” Tre Johnson describes an endless loop – an ouroboro – that our country faces, where Black Americans continuously relive the same injustices and white Americans continue revisiting the same performance. It is cruel the way white people can so easily act as if reading a book or signing a petition makes them “woke.” This single act does not absolve them of the lifetimes of privilege they have enjoyed. I, a white woman, am completely at fault for this type of thinking. Realizing you have privilege is not an easy thing, and the more you have the harder it is for you to recognize. (If you struggle understanding this, I encourage you to listen to Dr. Camara Jones’ allegories.) White people must understand that it is NOT the job of a marginalized group to educate those with privilege about their privilege – that is 100 percent on us. Reading for education is necessary; however, it can become a performance when you let it become a transient phase of your “wokeness” and you fall back into the comfort of your privilege. The knowledge we attain from these books and stories and persons must be translated into action.

“This is the racial ouroboros our country finds itself locked in, as black Americans relive an endless loop of injustice and white Americans keep revisiting the same performance, a Broadway show that never closes, just goes on hiatus now and then.” – Tre Johnson

We also need to critically analyze our roles in maintaining oppressive structures. This requires an understanding of the history of the structures in place and where you fit into them. This has been a collective realization for most of us in SJC and so we have gone back to our roots and picked back up with our book club. In May, we read Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power. We discussed Kazu Haga’s Healing Resistance in early July. Through our book club, we have been able to engage with our colleagues in all class years, including incoming students. It has been inspiring to see their dedication to this work before even entering school. Additionally, we have expanded the book club to include faculty, staff, and graduate students. I have learned so much from the texts and our discussions so far and am grateful for all who have participated. Though productive, I recognize the privilege that we have to engage so freely in these conversations. Some have been imprisoned and killed fighting for this freedom.

From Mialovena Exume ‘24

“Seeing white people discuss racism with an apparent sense of freedom that has not been afforded to ethnic minorities in the past is painful and more than frustrating,” Dr. Roberta Babb tells Metro.co.uk.

We hope the SJC book club is more than just a book club. Through our conversations, we hope we can identify actionable steps, specifically for those in the groups with the most privilege who must be willing to do the work. People are often eager to acquire knowledge about oppression but fail to reflect on the roles they themselves play – actively or unintentionally – in perpetuating oppression. As the notable political activist Angela Davis states, “To be nonracist is not enough,” and so we must continuously learn and reflect on our actions with the goal of being antiracist. As a Black woman, it has been exhausting witnessing the same injustices over and over without people being held accountable. I call on you to hold yourself accountable for your actions and the microaggressions that you have learned to normalize. Racism is a public health issue, and as future health professionals we have a duty to serve and uplift the oppressed. That must be done through education, reflection, and actions.

This post’s intention is not to make anyone feel guilty or bad if their first step toward anti-racism work is reading a book or joining a book club. The point is to highlight the ability of people with certain privileges, like being white, to go this long in their life before realizing they need to do more. We must do more in order to break the racial ouroboros in our country. Think about this: We are entering the medical profession and our professional symbol is the Caduceus, the snakes upwardly wrapping around the staff. History has made fighting racism feel like an ouroboro where the snake infinitely chases its tail and relives the same experiences. Our goal in SJC is to break these cycles and upwardly work towards self-education, self-reflection and action just like the snakes in the Caduceus.

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