Photograph by Arran Hashim

Ray Warren Symposium talks bias in health and medicine

By Gelsey Plaza

This year’s 15th Annual Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies, Bitter Pills, focused on race, health and medicine. The symposium explored the racialized dimensions of health and medicine in institutions, communities, and individual experiences, delving into questions such as: How do systems of oppression make people sick? Who has access to health care, and whose well-being is prioritized through public health policies? This year’s symposium provided the LC community with insight into health care inequality and healing justice, and it aimed to inspire critical thinking of how society could eradicate such inequality in the future.  

Student co-chair Maya Litauer Chan ’19 said that the symposium reminded the LC community to acknowledge the health and treatment disparities between communities of color and working class versus both the white and the wealthy communities.

“Many students have struggled with health, and students of color have likely faced more obstacles,” Litauer Chan said. “Furthermore, it is often easy in an academic setting to theorize racism and oppression. The Ray Warren Symposium, and this theme in particular, remind us that racism affects real people and real communities, and asks us to learn from and listen to folks in the struggle both in our own LC community as well as in the greater Portland area.”

The symposium consisted of presentations and panels led by LC students and professors as well as guest speakers from across the nation. The keynote speakers included: Associate professor of history at Queens College, CUNY and OAH Distinguished Lecturer Deirdre Cooper Owens; Healing Justice Facilitator Autumn Brown; Founder of Healing Clinic Collective Carla M. Perez; and co-founder of National Compadres Network Jerry Tello.

One event was co-sponsored by Students for Cultural Inclusion in the Theater (SCIT) and the LC Theatre Department. A small group of LC students performed “A Bitter Pill: A Play Within a Play”, written and directed by Josie Seid in collaboration with student producer Eva Magaña ’20. The play reflected on the challenges people, specifically those coming from marginalized groups, still encounter around inaccessible health care.

One of the actresses, Tuse Mahenya ’21, said that the play was very important for her.

“I became more aware and concerned for homeless people, not in the grander scheme of things but in the simple sense that they are, like me, just people trying to get by,” Mahenya said. “And the fact that this country and many others in the world treat these people with an alarming level of disdain and disrespect, was brought to the forefront of my mind throughout the rehearsals and the performance. And from then, I hope to continue to contemplate and remain aware, not only of my fortune and privilege, but also of the mere fact that all of these people, are in fact that, people.”

The Race Monologues is one of the most popular events of the Ray Warren symposium. Each year, a different group of LC students writes an original series of personal narratives to share their feelings, experiences, and understandings of race, ethnicity and identity.

According to student co-chair Angelica Flores ’19, Race Monologues is important to the Ray Warren Symposium because it reminds LC, as a predominantly white school, that the issues that are being explored in the symposium are actually being experienced by their peers.

“It makes the realities of people of color that much more real and it reminds the students of color that they’re not alone,” Flores said. “For some, being part of Race Monologues is a form of healing, and that was the idea behind the symposium to remind our institution the importance of self care. That’s why we all worked hard with the creation of the healing justice practice space that was specifically aimed towards students of color.”

Another component of the symposium is the Watzek Library Special Collections and Archives Exhibit. This year’s exhibit, “Medicine in the West: Power, Authority, and Knowledge Exchange Between Native Americans and The Corps of Discovery,” focuses on native medical practices and how the Corps of Discovery viewed Native American healing practices and knowledge through the lense of Western medicine. It illustrates how those views, through different journal encounters with Native Americans, displayed the racialized and gendered power dynamics relevant to contemporary 19th century traveler accounts.

The exhibit walks people through the interaction of race and medicine as it pertains to authority on the Lewis & Clark expedition in the medical encounters between the members of the Corps and the indigenous peoples they encountered. According to student co-curator Beja Wolf ’19, the curators wanted to inquire after the ways in which medicine became a method for the Corps to assert authority over the indigenous tribes, and wondered how this might exemplify a larger pattern of colonial conduct in medical encounters.

While the primary artifact texts used in the exhibit are from Watzek Special Collections, the medical equipment artifacts were courtesy of the OHSU historical collections and archives. The two books from Watzek Special Collections featured in the exhibit are one by 19th century medical doctor Benjamin Rush, who was consulted by Meriwether Lewis for the trip, and another by David Livingstone, who was a 19th century physician and Christian missionary in Africa. The visuals, which primarily come from Carl Linnaeus’ 18th century guide to plants, also come from Watzek, as well as the handwritten transcriptions of the Corps’ journal entries.

Wolf believes that the exhibit is important in that it explores the ways that allopathic medicine, or conventional, Western medicine, has a history of invalidating different approaches to treatment that seem less inherently viewable or able to be proved. It then explores the ways that this invalidation is tied to notions of power, expansion, and racial biases.

“I believe that although allopathic medicine has brought along many crucial advances in science that have helped enormously with acute pain and have saved many lives, its blind spot is pain and illness that is more difficult to directly quantify — problems that have a larger context of culture, tradition, and inheritance, among other factors. As we now know, since the days of Lewis & Clark, the culture of indigenous people has been greatly decimated by predominantly white forces of power in the United States,” Wolf said. “I hope this exhibit makes people wonder about the effect that a medical philosophy might have had on that eradication.”

Student co-curator Ostin Merkle-Lawler ’19 thinks that the exhibit is a great historical representation of how medicine as a practice, form of knowledge, and discourse influences how we think about race and gender.

“While medicine can certainly be a useful tool for healing and community, recent events and history have both shown us that it is a realm not immune to the social inequalities of our day, or of any period for that matter,” Merkle-Lawler said. “Like everything, medicine has a history, and its connection to racial, gendered, and other social inequalities does as well, especially in past, colonial contexts.”

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