Being anti-racist in vet med: A movement, not merely a moment

There has been a worldwide outpouring of peaceful and nondestructive protests focusing on racism and police brutality in the wake of the graphic and emotional murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Daniel Prude, and so many countless other Black human beings. These senseless shootings and deaths represent the tip of the iceberg of frustrations about the impact of systemic racism in the U.S. Many say the protests shouldn’t turn into riots, but it is also true that a simple arrest or lying asleep in bed shouldn’t turn into a murder scene.

Justice is not just about police being fired and arrested for these senseless murders. Justice is also about how we treat one another in our communities and in our everyday careers, including veterinary medicine. We ultimately want to “bend the arc of the universe toward justice,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said. But that arc has been very slow to come into fruition in our country for many black and brown human beings. How many murders and shootings have police officers committed that were not recorded and thus swept under the rug? These protests we are all seeing around us now are in response to that very slow arc which we all want to see in our communities and in veterinary medicine.

Due to global shut-downs, everyone—in some form—has been emotionally and physically forced to sit down and deal with what has been going on for quite some time.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA) the U.S. has a track record of historically and systemically disadvantaging certain racial groups and racism and police brutality detrimentally impacts the health of Black communities. Additionally, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted black communities in a very dramatic and horrific way here in America. We are now more than ever pushed to view the horrors and realities of racism. It seems this had made people more outspoken about being overtly anti-racist. We must understand that being against racism is not merely enough; we must continually be anti-racist each and every day. That means calling out racism whether we feel comfortable doing so or not. With this, we must also make necessary changes within the structures that have already been put into place.

Understanding that we don’t know everything and we should be seeking out and accessing the necessary history and correct information in order to educate ourselves and to others is pivotal. Even more in veterinary medicine, which happens to be the least diverse profession. It seems many people are just now coming to grips with the reality that for a long time people of color have been treated very differently, not only by individuals, but by institutions and structures put into place way before any of us were born.

According to Katherine A. DeCelles, at Harvard Business School, discrimination still exists in the workplace and organizations now have an opportunity to recognize this issue as a pinch point, so they can do something about it. And doing something about it is exactly what needs to take place in veterinary medicine. It is not enough to merely say and give lip service. You must prove you are against racism. We need action to take place. Now that we have a better way of recognizing, recording, documenting, and identifying racism, we can better address the issue at hand and come up with solutions to combat racism. The pandemic has opened up our eyes to racism in a very harsh way, but now is the time to work against it. Enough is enough.

“For better or worse, what’s happening in the U.S. has spotlighted what needs to change in the profession, too. It’s not enough to stand by and be silent and say; it’s not right, but it’s not happening here,” says Dr. Christina Tran, president of the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA). “Everybody has to speak up and take action, or else nothing will change.”

How do we as human beings in the veterinary medical profession expect anything to change or get better if we do not call out those very problems within our own community? Diversity is one aspect of change, but once diversity is reached, inclusion needs to be implemented. It is the path toward getting past gatekeepers and taking a beautiful seat at the table of veterinary medicine.

It may seem like taking action is obvious, but even though most people are against racism in veterinary medicine, there is such a thing as being a “performative ally.” According to Fortune, “performative allyship” is a very real and prevalent issue in our society and more specifically in the field. So what does it mean? The definition of an “ally” in this case is someone from a non-marginalized group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group. By advocating for that marginalized group, they are transferring the benefits of their privilege onto those individuals who do not have it.  However, one who is “performative” is an “ally” receiving some kind of benefit or reward (more commonly seen on social media as a type of a virtual pat on the back for being a “good person”). People start to do this in order to receive some sort of recognition to make themselves feel better, when in reality they haven’t actually helped the marginalized group progress. Although it is a nice gesture that may seem helpful, sharing a #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM) profile picture on Instagram or posting a black box does not do anything to address the actual issue if you are not actively anti-racist every single day. Being a true ally does not mean being perfect but it does require action. This is a very common issue in our society and in veterinary medicine that needs to be addressed.

Taking action against racism is what veterinary medicine needs right now. If we can watch racist individuals kneel on the neck of a man in broad daylight, just imagine the subtle and less overt racism that takes place in classrooms, hospitals, clinics, human resource departments, and at veterinary medical schools around the country. Now is the time to be vocal and make a change. We must understand it is not just a donation or a smile, but a constant effort to implement this in all that you do. There is no time off.

It is sad and tragic that it took COVID-19 in order for us as a society to slow down and pay attention to what is going on around us. I believe that veterinary medicine is, was, and has the potential to be such a rewarding career, but with any great career, there needs to be ongoing change. Making a statement about racism is a great step, but now how are you speaking out, taking action, and implementing change in the veterinary medical community? Racism is not something that is going to end over night; it is imperative that we make these continual, incremental changes. Will you still stand up for and be anti-racist when #BLM isn’t trending?

“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”- Ijeoma Oluo











Kenneth Burris is a fourth-year veterinary medical student at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Born in the District of Columbia and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is a graduate of Tufts University, Biomedical Engineering Systems and Sociology (Social Inequalities and Social Change Concentration) a double major and a minor in Africana Studies. He is a graduate of Hampton University (HBCU), where he earned a Master of Medical Science degree. Kenneth completed a Graduate Business Minor in Health Sciences at The OSU Fisher College of Business and is on student government at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine as one of the Class of 2022’s Diversity Committee Representatives.


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