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Cuyahoga County Board of Health doctor offers powerful statement on racism: 'Silence and inaction are not options'

'The time is now to use your voice, your privilege and your power for real change.'

CLEVELAND — As county health officials joined together Friday to deliver their weekly press conference regarding coronavirus, another topic was weighing heavily in the room: Racism.

Dr. Heidi Gullett, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health Medical Director, offered an emotional statement on dealing with racism and white privilege. You can read her comments in full below or watch in the video player above.

Dr. Gullett in her own words:

This is not a matter of right or left along the political spectrum. This is a matter of our shared humanity. Today, though, I want to share some insights from my own life as a Northeast Ohio native, a mother and a physician. I’m white, which means I was born with privilege. The privilege associated with being white is automatic, given the context in which we live in the United States. I have seen images that look like me everywhere I look since I was very young. Products are designed for my skin color and my hair type. I can do everyday activities without fear of bias. As a white physician, I can walk nearly every place in a hospital without being questioned. That is not the case for individuals of color here or in communities across the country. 

It has long been time for those of us with privilege that confers us undeserved power to do the necessary and uncomfortable deep work of understanding, personally confronting and collectively eliminating racism. From implicit bias in our personal interactions and behavior to changing systems and policies that perpetuate structural racism and maintain our privilege. As a member of the dominant race, silence and inaction are not options. Every single one of us has a role to use our hearts and our minds and our spheres of influence to catalyze change. This requires transformation of our deeply ingrained perspectives about race. This includes learning the historical roots of racial inequity in this country, not the sanitized versions we learned in school but the actual truth about this country’s history.

As a first step, sign up for a racial equity institute training right here in our community. It will be two days that radically transform you. Build authentic relationships, those of mutual respect predicated on trust that’s earned over time with people who look different than you. Talk to your kids about racism now. Take a look at your workplace, your place of worship, the businesses you patronize, do all the people there look like you? Speak truth to power. Take a stand for inclusion in those places regardless of the personal cost. Patronize businesses owned by people of color and those who are different from you. Listen to people of color. Really listen to them. Listen to what they experience every single day, and what those with lived experience truly believe is necessary to move all of us as individuals, as a community and as a country to be better. These activities are just a few, and they’re certainly not sufficient but they can be done right now right here. It will begin to give you a glimpse into the everyday struggle of people of color in this community and in this country because of racism. The time is now to use your voice, your privilege and your power for real change.

I often hear from individuals when we have these discussions of race who are white who say that their lives have been hard -- and that’s truth -- but this conversation about racism in no way invalidates your experience of struggle, in poverty or other difficult circumstances. But what those of us who are white need to understand is our struggles are not made more difficult by the color of our skin, and we are afforded privileges we don’t even realize because we are so used to being in power even when we find ourselves in tough circumstances. It will take all of us to work together collectively to change our community and our nation into a place where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, language, sexual orientation or any other non-majority demographic.

As a physician, I see firsthand the effects of the brokenness of this world through the immense privilege of partnering with patients in their lives. I frequently reflect that the issues contributing most intensely to poor physical and behavioral health are not actually anything I learned how to manage in medical school or residency, but rather they are issues of racism and poverty. Those are the actual causes of illness and death, and those are the very issues we must work together to solve as individuals and as a collective community. It begins with each of us right now.

In my moment of gratitude today, I would like to conclude by thanking countless people who have influenced my personal perspective transformation journey around understanding racism, helping me better understand their experience as people of color and my role in this as a white woman of privilege. I regret that I cannot name everyone here, but I want each of you to know how profoundly grateful I am for you spending time you didn’t have – and that I didn’t deserve – to educate yet another white person about this issue. I cannot imagine how exhausting that must be day in and day out, but I’m personally grateful for that sacrifice. I specifically wanted to mention two physician mentors at Wright State who guided me through medical school, Dr. Alonzo Patterson and Dr. Rhea Rowser, who believed, I don’t know why, in a naïve white kid in her early 20s. They spent a great deal of time, personally, pouring into me. I also want to thank my longtime hip Cuyahoga co-chair, Greg Brown, an incredible leader in this community for many decades. He has generously given up himself in catalyzing my understanding of what we all need to do together. Finally, I want to thank all of my patients – but particularly my patients of color – who have given me a great deal of trust as a white doctor, trust I didn’t deserve and hand’t earned but which you so graciously gave. You have all taught me so very much, and I thank you for your mentorship. These relationships and many others have transformed my life and my understanding of race and privilege in my role in fighting for change. For all of that, I’m grateful for these eternal gifts.

You can watch the entire Board of Health press conference in the player below:


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