OPINION: On race, health and social change; an open letter to STEM students

White building with steps in front and greenery bordering it
Harvard Medical School student Aseal Birir PO ’18 encourages STEM students to take Africana Studies courses to better understand the identities of others and promote equity in STEM. (Lucas Carmel • The Student Life)

As someone with numerous identities (Sudanese immigrant, Muslim, low income), the one that was most challenging to reconcile — because of its implicit and explicit devaluation by society — was being a Black male. Unfortunately, my immigrant single mother was not fully able to prepare me for the prejudice against this identity. Instead, my teacher was racist epithets and the inherent danger in my stature as a larger Black male athlete growing up in America.

With this realization, amid national race-related protests during my first undergraduate year at Pomona College, I was motivated to take an Africana Studies course, despite being a chemistry major and pre-med. The class instilled in me a greater appreciation of my multifactorial identity by shifting my understanding of myself away from a Eurocentric one. Similarly, it made clear the value in appreciating the unique identities of others, a practice I hope to bring to patient care as a physician. The enrichment that class provided surpassed my expectations when I originally enrolled and stretched into my eventual career in medicine. For this reason, I believe an Africana Studies class to be of value to any STEM student. 

Africana Studies has provided me with a framework to understand all forms of inequity. Africana Studies is an all-encompassing body of work detailing how to understand oppression. Class debates refocus our perspective away from traditional Eurocentric ideology, towards those who are “othered” in society, while readings provide the language needed to identify and describe inequities. I use this language in medical school today to understand the racial inequities present in healthcare, exacerbated by COVID-19, and the recent highly publicized murders of Black men by police.

Furthermore, the class broadened my understanding of who is oppressed in America. In class, I listened to the unique lived experiences of classmates that highlighted forms of oppression I hadn’t previously realized. Indeed, much of my time in the class was focused on gender and sexual oppression. All of this helped me understand the interactions of my varied identities (and those of others) in the process of subjugation — from a framework termed intersectionality.

Having the language to understand these inequities is important for STEM students because medicine, science and tech are not isolated from social inequalities. The very same problems that innovations in these fields hope to solve (e.g. new medical treatments) are the ones felt most acutely by those neglected by society: marginalized communities. STEM careers can play an important role in ending these inequities, but a prerequisite to this effort is an understanding of how to think about them. Africana Studies satisfies this prerequisite. 

However, more than just theory is needed to effect change: Africana Studies moves past a reformulation of Eurocentric history by teaching us how to galvanize positive social change in our society. The courses outline how to move from theory to praxis. Social change is more nuanced than the hackneyed definition of nonviolent protests provided in middle school classrooms. In recognizing alternative forms of resistance, such as those described by historian Robin Kelley — termed infrapolitics — Africana Studies illuminates who can and cannot participate in traditional forms of resistance. 

Reading Frantz Fanon teaches us about colonization of the mind, explaining that learning historical injustice is both “ … the condition and the source of liberation from [colonization of the mind].” Learning the various ways to promote change is relevant to STEM. In medicine, not only is health unequal, but so is health care (the same is true for scientific research, technology companies, etc.). Working in inequitable fields without goals of equity in mind is to propagate those failures. STEM students will be entering fields in which inequalities are at their worst, while the potential to ameliorate them for society is at its greatest. Africana Studies can be the meaningful first step for many students to promote equity in these sectors.

I am pursuing medicine for its capacity to heal, to innovate through research and to provide meaningful human connection. My first year at Harvard Medical School has illuminated the fact that medicine is not practiced in a vacuum, but rather at the end of a long line of injustices that influence the afflictions of the patients I have had the privilege of treating. No matter how you plan to use an undergrad degree in STEM, the lessons of Africana Studies will impact you positively. I encourage students in STEM fields to leave the safety of textbooks and problem sets for uncomfortable but meaningful lessons and discussions in Africana Studies classes.

Aseal Birir PO ’18 is originally from Novato, California, and is now a second year at Harvard Medical School who is broadly interested in health equity and technology. He spent his gap year between medical school and undergrad conducting cancer research at UCSF. 

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