At the beginning of every academic year, the University of Washington Department of Global Health selects a Common Book to bring together students, staff, and faculty to learn about a topic of shared importance. This year, the department selected “Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World” by award-winning author Dr. Anu Taranath.
In “Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World,” Taranath challenges readers to consider questions of race, culture, and privilege that can arise when well-intentioned travelers from the West venture overseas. For example, to study, volunteer, or work abroad.
“Good intentions won’t actually help us unpack some of the complex colonial histories that you and I are living and working in, unless we actually stay at the table for more sustained dialogue with one another,” said Taranath during a virtual Common Book event last month moderated by DGH Vice Chair for Academic Programs Susan Graham.
But how exactly do we have these important but difficult conversations?
In addition to being an author, Taranath is a racial equity consultant and teaching professor in the UW Departments of English and Comparative History of Ideas. Over the last two decades, she’s learned how to be comfortable with discomfort.
“This work for me is really about creating more resilience and presence in ourselves to know that in moments of discomfort, we've got enough fortitude and presence to move through it. And that at the end of it, you and I will be okay.”
During her talk, she shared wisdom and strategies for engaging in meaningful dialogue on the charged and challenging topic of global health equity.
COMPASSION FOR ALL LEVELS OF LEARNERS
When it comes to discussing complex issues such as racism and colonialism, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone is starting from a different place. Some will have been thinking about these issues for years, while others will be brand new to the conversation.
She advises not to get hung up on what she calls “clumsy” language, and instead to focus on what matters – people’s curiosity, willingness to change, and ability to grow. Without this compassion and patience, the conversation could break down.
“Shame and blame is really seductive,” acknowledges Taranath. “But I also know pedagogically it doesn't do much for us. We really need folks sustained intentionally, and with commitment and passion, through our expected clumsiness.”
INTERRUPTING IMPLICIT BIAS
Allowing people to talk openly about what they observe and feel when they interact with people from global communities is critical for another reason – it helps surface and address unconscious stereotypes.
“One of the best ways of trying to interrupt implicit bias is to be more intentional, and to say things out loud. If we are so invested in trying to muffle what we actually see, I think it leads us down some paths that become really dangerous for ourselves and others,” cautions Taranath.
THE REVOLUTIONARY POWER OF ‘AND’
For Taranath, one of the most powerful words in the English language is the small but mighty word “and,” because it helps us hold multiple, opposing ideas at once without negating any of them. Being able to recognize and embrace dichotomies is particularly important when discussing the nuances of equitable work within global health.
“Global health as a field does incredible things,” recognizes Taranath. “It's also very much situated within the long arm of colonialism, and the long arm of racial inequity and resource inequity that has given rise to the need for global health. We as a community are going to have to be able to grapple with both of these concepts at once.”
Fortunately, it’s possible to strengthen our capacity to embrace multiple intentions and identities. For example, Taranath suggests the following simple exercise.
The next time you find yourself in the presence of strangers, consider the ways in which they are just as complex as you are and remind yourself that yours is just one of many stories in the world.
“There's nothing unique about my story,” says Taranath. “I mean, I'm a unique person. Sure. AND there's really nothing so unique about me. I'm just a regular person in the world. The juxtaposition of that gives me a lot of interest and curiosity about holding those stories for other people.”
READING VS. TALKING
Another way of cultivating interest and curiosity in other people’s stories is through consuming media, such as movies and books, that present diverse points of view.
“Being able to open a book and imagine that a character's life might have something to do with you can be powerful. It's one of those really humbling experiences that we can have,” says Taranath.
But she also warns of the limitations of imagining a book can take the place of actual conversations with actual people. And she recommends asking careful questions of the media you consume, such as: “Who's telling the story? How often do we hear this voice? How is that racialized? How is that gendered?”
JUSTICE WORK IS MULTIPLE
One thing is clear from Taranath’s emphasis on the concept of “and” – there is no single solution to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in global health. In her own work, she wrestles with whether to work within existing, unequal institutions to bring forth change or to create something more intentional and equitable from the ground up. Ultimately, she concludes a variety of strategies and channels are required.
“There’s no one way,” she says. “That's what a lot of my work has taught me. There's no one way to do justice work. Justice work is multiple. And we need all kinds of voices. And we need all kinds of skills and all kinds of different ideas.”