In commemoration of Black History Month, the Atlanta Global Studies Center, a collaboration between the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University’s (GSU), hosted a multi-institutional panel about understanding race in a global context of power, access and policy on Feb. 5. 

Co-director of Operations and Outreach at the Center for the Studies of African Diaspora at GSU Jennie Ward-Robinson moderated the conversation between scholars from prominent Atlanta colleges, like Emory University, Spelman College, GSU and Morehouse College. The scholars examined what constitutes race and how people understand race at local and global levels. 

Professor of English and co-interim Director of the Center for Studies on Africa and its Diaspora at GSU Elizabeth West reminded viewers that “while our discussion today interregotates the concept of what we call race for its absence of fact, we must not dismiss the experiential impact of this construction.” 

West analyzed historical accounts of race from the reverence of black skin in biblical references of antiquity to the plantation system’s creation of  the “Black and white binary.” 

“Western society has propagated its racial binary of Black and white as the divide between the human, white and the other — Black,” West said. “Into the 21st century, across the globe, nations and people, white and non-white, vie in part for power and access for power out of the prism of this binary.”

According to Professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory and Associate Dean for Community Engagement, Equity and Inclusion in the Emory School of Medicine Sheryl Heron, this binary permeates the medical field. 

Heron has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, exposing her to the inequities that exist in the world of health care and highlighting the “disparities in terms of the mortality and morbidity for Black, Brown and Indigenous people of color.”

Heron emphasized that the population must be educated about health inequities, including histories of medical apartheid and the experimental mistreatment of Black and brown people. 

“We can forge forward as a community to diminish, and quite frankly refute, using race as a construct certainly in healthcare,” Heron said.   

People are more than just their race, Heron added. Race intersects with gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, disability and socioeconomic status, all of which must be taken into account, particularly in the world of medicine. 

Professor of English at Spelman College and the Chair of African Diaspora and the World Program Pushpa Parekh echoed this sentiment. Noting her status as a professor and woman of color, Parekh considers her experience with race as both personal and academic and views race
“as intersectional and fluid.”

However, Parekh understood race differently while growing up in India. 

“Race is not used much in India, or race constructs about our identity are not really at the forefront, probably because there are so many other aspects of our identity that we put as a framework for how we identify,” Parekh said. 

Honorary Consul of Senegal Julius Coles also spoke of his experience with race internationally.

Growing up in segregated Atlanta in the 1940s, Coles found race as a defining factor of his childhood. “The Black community had its own schools, it had its own businesses, it had its own banks, it had its own newspapers.”

While a student at Morehouse, Coles traveled to Africa in 1961 and had an eye-opening experience with African race relations. 

“The Africans looked at the Black students as being Americans first and then perhaps people of color second,” Coles noted. “They did not look at us upon the basis of racial classification.” 

In 1962, Coles attended the University of Geneva where he learned alongside students from across the world. He discovered that he could compete academically at the global scale, and that his professors and peers saw him as more than just his race. 

“They looked upon me as a human being first, an American second and a person of mixed ancestry probably third,” Coles said.

Assistant Professor of Political Science at Spelman College Dorian Brown Crosby noted that American culture tends to identify and label people based on their skin color, explaining that “when African refugees are resettled in the United States, they are automatically placed into that socially constructed racial category of Black.”

African refugees searching for housing, jobs and education in America must work within the framework of race and its systemic impact, while simultaneously coping with the experience of being a refugee, Crosby said.

Crosby spoke bluntly about the Southeast for African refugees, saying that “if you do not fit that white, anglosaxon, protestant, heterosexual paradigm, you just don’t belong.” 

Despite persistent police brutality of Black Americans and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color, Crosby is optimistic that we can tackle these issues. 

“What we are experiencing now is the perfect storm,” Crosby said. “The United States has never gone through a reckoning of its past which is built on white supremacy, and this is the moment that we have to face.” 

Heron pointed to the visibility of Black people in positions of power and access, like Amanda Gorman, the young Black female poet who spoke at the President Joe Biden’s inauguration, as signs of change.

Heron posed one question individuals must consider to create a more optimistic future: “What will we do as leaders and as individuals where we sit to be able to deconstruct the narrative that has been created for us to move ourselves forward in the way that is necessary on a global stage, on a local stage and in the spaces and places in which we live, work and breathe?”

Correction (2/16/2021 at 2 p.m.): The article has been corrected to reflect that the Atlanta Global Studies Center is a collaboration between the Georiga Institute of Technology and Georgia State University.