Waking Up to a New Consciousness of Why I Do What I Do

Crystal Lumpkins, PhD, MA; University of Kansas Medical Center

I, like many other behavioral and social scientists in academia thought that this semester would be filled with walking to our classrooms on campus, holding in-person lectures, meeting with students and conversing with colleagues in our offices – all while keeping up with research in the lab or community. Instead, we traded these familiar and expected encounters for what technology could offer us via Zoom or Go To Meeting Apps. The COVID-19 Pandemic took many of us by surprise and left an indelible mark, not only globally, but in our personal every-day lives. I believe this helped me to gain a new state of consciousness. 

As I sit here writing this in my bedroom at 3:30 a.m., my being wide eyed and pondering how culture and race define my life, routines and identity as an African American woman, wife, mother and faculty researcher, it has awoken something in me and made me acutely aware.

A family member’s words during a recent phone conversation after the news broke about the disproportionate COVID-19 death and testing rates among African Americans went something like this: “I don’t believe in all of these things that they (the media) are reporting about black people.  This is just not true – it seems made up.  I talked to (X) and she said that this is just another thing to talk about how bad off we are.”  Another friend opined that it was unfortunate that now the story made national news – what about all of the other health disparities that African Americans and other minorities have faced for years?  The conversations that occurred one day apart from each other were at opposite ends. On one end was a family member who believed that the information from the media was misleading and false and at the other end was a friend’s frustration about long-standing disparities that were quietly persisting with little concern from the media. These polar opposite comments brought me reeling back to a stark reality that I had unconsciously and maybe subconsciously distanced myself from. I had neatly tucked away my feelings about the content of the research to survive and keep my head above water. 

As a communication scientist, in some ways I have treated my research much like a news story when I was a reporter; very conscious about taking the stories that impact African Americans but subconsciously taking extra steps to show impartiality as an African American reporter.  It was crucial that I gathered several sides to the story to present it in a way that was translatable and relatable and definitely not from “just” an African American point of view. In some cases when I didn’t ask for the story, I was somewhat indignant and wanted to ask why I was being given the story in the first place. Was I feeding into their unconscious bias by selecting and accepting these stories? 

The thought about unconscious biases and my own subconscious and unconscious thinking about race and cultural identity were further realized with yet another conversation last week during a research- methods call. A (white) colleague of mine told me that she had a conversation with another social scientist that stated that we need to move past this so-called focus on African Americans and specific factors that impact behavior outcome (not just COVID-19 but in all public health contexts).  This individual’s rationale was that we as a society have progressed enough and that African Americans have been afforded similar opportunities and that there was no longer the need for an emphasis on this group. The social scientist further expressed that by focusing on differences we were actually holding back progress. Had I not had the conversation with my colleague whom I trust, I don’t think that I would have believed the scientist’s opinions.

Finally, I fast forward to January 6 of this year – another case of unconscious bias. I unfortunately had to be rushed to the emergency room because of an irregular EKG.  I was not in the office but conducting research in the community that day.  I didn’t have on business clothes but was in jeans, a t-shirt, donned a baseball cap and had no makeup on.  The nurse was not nice. I guess to him, I was the typical African American presenting with symptoms that meant I didn’t take care of myself and could have high blood pressure. While in the moment I was very aware and conscious of what was happening – my husband was there and confirmed my fears. I chose not to dwell on it and shelved it away to survive. I was in the middle of writing a grant and needed to just get back to work.  It was not until this moment, right now in the wee hours of the morning that I realized that my time as a reporter and being a gatekeeper of news; my training as a communication scientist; my conversation with my family and friend; that dreadful visit to the ER and hearing the words of that social scientist have helped me to cull a necessary mental memory map to create a roadmap to conscious thinking and living.  It’s in this time of consciousness (my identity of being African American, a woman, wife, mother and researcher) that I realize that I can make a difference and that I am being authentic. All of these parts of me are legitimately contributing to the whole and the work that I do. I will no longer let others conscious and unconscious biases quiet my spirit or minimize the research that I chose to do. If enough of us wake up and realize our own biases toward ourselves and others, it is in that moment that differences and change can be made.