Why It Matters
Constructing the idea of “race” was complicated, so it should be no surprise that dismantling racism in the US is just as difficult.
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Our Oaths and Our Actions Can Dismantle Racism

By Tamsin Jones | Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Our Oaths

Photo by Michael Schwarzenberger | Pixabay

Joseph Jones was my paternal great-grandfather. He was born enslaved and freed as a young man. Cornelius Frazier was my maternal great-great-grandmother. She was born enslaved and freed as a young woman. Their names and stories are part of an oral history told to me from childhood, accompanied with artifacts that included a hefty 9-pound flat iron.

I have often imagined the juxtaposition of the forging of the iron and the shaping of my far and near ancestors, both molded by striking, heating, bending, and cutting. Even though many African Americans and Africans of the Diaspora do not know their ancestors’ names, the connection we feel to them is often as deep as an anvil thrown into the Atlantic Ocean and as strong as chains forged like my bequeathed iron.

Many of us have likely reflected on making an ancestor proud. With that aim, I have pledged an oath to my ancestors to uplift the voices of the unheard and to champion the underdog with balance, fairness, and equity in my daily walk as the Chief Human Resources and Operating Officer for IHI.

The relationship between ancestors and self is significant to many people, but it’s especially cogent for Africans of the Diaspora. In traditional African religions, philosophies, and cultures, one is taught to swear their allegiance to the ancestors and to uphold certain customs.

This concept finds its parallel in the origins of the Hippocratic Oath requiring new physicians to swear to healing gods and uphold certain ethical standards. Contemporary medical students still take updated versions of this oath.

The doctor-patient relationship is profound and influential. We have witnessed it throughout history, even before licensure existed. It permeates our culture, social constructs, and analogies when describing everyday life. It is a relationship that must be deeply rooted in the values of equity, trust, courage, and love. The interactions between the physician and patient have been the focus of analysis and debate concerning the philosophical and moral duties of the profession. 

As a layperson, my understanding and expectation is that new physicians take an oath to act in the best interest of the patient. This pledge requires moral conduct and accountability to the tenets of that oath. It’s meant to guide a physician’s actions when faced with medical and moral dilemmas.

The ethical concepts held in the heart of the medical profession are admirable, having been derived from a range of world cultures, philosophies, and religions. These ethics help physicians create treatment plans that help patients get well and heal.

What treatment plan will help our nation and world get well and heal from the harms of racism and White supremacy culture? How can physicians and other health care providers draw upon the ethical codes of their professions to confront the years of inequities that have once again been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic? How can medical professionals combine their pledge to “do no harm” with the science and reasoning needed to undo systems that create or exacerbate pain and suffering?

Constructing the idea of “race” — and its sick offspring, racism and White supremacy — was complicated, so it should be no surprise that dismantling the race problem in the US is just as difficult. However, identifying and acting on a treatment plan is possible no matter how complex the diagnosis may be.

There are a range of approaches we can use to treat racism and undo White supremacy culture. They all begin by making a pledge to act in the best interest of people of color. All require acknowledging where and when we have failed in honoring our oaths to self, ancestors, or the healing gods. They also begin with the deeply personal self-work that is akin to the forging of my bequeathed iron and my African enslaved ancestors. 

Please join me in taking an oath to designate a day to be reflective. Be one of the millions of people in the United States and worldwide to take the day off on June 19 to honor Joseph Jones, Cornelius Frazier, and the several million Africans enslaved until 1865. Let’s celebrate this day — also known as Juneteenth, the oldest national commemoration of the ending of slavery in the US — by doing the self-work necessary to grow as individuals and by continuing to learn and grow as communities.

R. Tamsin Jones, MS, MA, is IHI’s Chief Human Resources and Operating Officer.

You may also be interested in:

Anti-Racist Resource Guide created by Victoria Alexander, MEd

Dismantle Collective White Allyship 101: Resources to Get to Work

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