What Is…Holding Space?

When I started my “what is” series, there were a number of terms that I thought were deserving of a post in the series, because they are viewed as social justice jargon that many don’t understand.

One term I was not aware of when I started the series, but sounded like jargon to me when I first heard it, was something called holding space. And then, I heard that term heard multiple times in short succession.

So, what is holding space, and why is it so important?

I’ve heard several definitions, but one of the more extensive definitions I’ve seen of it is that it is “to be present with someone, without judgment. It means you donate your ears and heart without wanting anything in return. It involves practicing empathy and compassion. You accept someone’s truths, no matter what they may be, and put your needs and opinions aside, allowing someone to just be.”[1] For example, if you need to process something that’s weighing you down emotionally and a friend of yours listens while you process things, that friend is holding space. When that friend is listening to your rant about something distressing in your academics, your job, or something else (and doing so without judging you, or even doing so by sympathizing with you by sharing their own experiences), they are holding space.

Holding space sounds easy, but it is actually really difficult for many of us. Holding space means that others and their experiences, as opposed to us and ours, are at the center of attention—something that some of us struggle with (because some of us can struggle to have anything other than us and our own experiences at the center). Some of us are more inclined towards taking up space emotionally instead of holding it; as such, that can make holding space all the more difficult.

In fact, certain topics are so sensitive and difficult to process that it’s not wise to expect a friend to hold space (for example, trauma of various kinds). I cannot say enough how important it is, in such a situation, to seek a mental health professional if at all possible. While I recognize the unfortunate reality that mental health care is expensive for many and has a scarcity of access for many (issues which could be the subject of their own blog post on access to mental health care),[2] there is no substitute for a good mental health professional when you need someone to help you process certain things. A friend may be helpful and loving in certain ways, but at the same time, a friend is not your mental health professional. Furthermore, mental health professionals—psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed social workers—are trained to do more than hold space; they are trained to help their clients process and address crises and other areas of concern.

Even if, in many cases, it may be best to seek a therapist, hopefully this post explains what it means to hold space in other situations.


[1] https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/holding-space

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/10/cost-and-accessibility-of-mental-health-care-in-america.html. One thing I should add though is that there are some resources out there for those who find money tight when it comes to mental health care; you can find some such resources here: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/mental-health-services-how-get-treatment-if-you-can-t-ncna875176

What Is…BIPOC?

Some terms are criticized as social justice jargon. However, many of these terms are important to know about and understand.

Over the past couple of years, one term that has increased in usage is BIPOC. This term has seen a particularly significant increase in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.[1]

But what is BIPOC, and why is that term significant?

In short, BIPOC is an acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. However, it is more than “just” an acronym—it is an acronym that is meant to “highlight the unique relationship to whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a U.S. context.”[2]

In reading many of the sentiments of those who like the term BIPOC, one common theme seems to be how the term reinforces the connections between Black and Indigenous people in experiencing racism in an America. In a way, BIPOC is an acronym of solidarity. While there may be certain experiences of Black people that differ from certain experiences of Indigenous people (for example, how some Black families still grapple with the legacy of slavery and segregation while some Indigenous families grapple with the legacies of Indian boarding schools), there is also that commonality in experiencing that relationship to whiteness that links Black and Indigenous people.

It is worth noting that there is another acronym different from BIPOC, yet also related: POC. POC stands for people of color. Before the events of the past year and a few months, I seldom saw BIPOC but commonly saw POC on social media and elsewhere.

My mention of POC, of course, provokes another question: Does this mean that we should use BIPOC instead of POC from now on? If a 2020 National Public Radio piece which asks the same question is an indicator of anything, opinions are divided on the question.[3] There are strong opinions on this question, but also differing ones. I personally do not feel it is in my place to be involved in the debate over whether to use BIPOC or POC, as I don’t fall under the POC/BIPOC umbrella.

What I do feel, though, is that for those of us who aren’t POC/BIPOC, we should understand both acronyms and their significance. Yet, at the same time, we should be ready to understand what is being talked about when we hear or see others talk about POC or BIPOC, and be ready to use either acronym depending on what our POC/BIPOC neighbors, friends, and colleagues prefer. Hopefully, those who have read this post will now have a greater understanding of both terms when they are used.


[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bipoc-meaning-where-does-it-come-from-2020-04-02/

[2] https://www.thebipocproject.org/

[3] https://www.npr.org/2020/09/29/918418825/is-it-time-to-say-r-i-p-to-p-o-c

What Is… Cultural Appropriation?

When I was a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania (which was in Fall 2015), a HUGE controversy erupted on campus. In short, there was an “Around the World” party at the college. At the party, a student posted on his Instagram account a photo of himself and a friend of his wearing sombreros. The photo had the caption “We swear we’ve got our green cards,” and the photo had the hashtags of #taco, #chihuahua and #tequila. In addition to the Instagram photo, there was a Facebook photo of a male student wearing a white flannel undershirt and a bandana posing with a female student at Dickinson who was wearing a sombrero at the party.[1]

To say that there was anger about the existence of the party, the social media posts, and the people involved in the party would be an understatement. The political climate in the United States was already tense at the time, with then-candidate Donald Trump surging in the polls with inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, and particularly Mexican immigrants. Therefore, when news of this party and the social media posts from the party spread around the student body at Dickinson, there was an outpouring of fury. In particular, there was fury at the fact that instead of aiming for cultural appreciation, the party and all involved with it instead performed acts that were considered by many to be cultural appropriation.

But what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”[2] Whether we realize it or not, cultural appropriation actually happens on an everyday basis. When, without acknowledgement, you use Arabic numerals to help you with your math, make food from other cultures, and wear a form of clothing design that comes from a culture not your own, you are performing acts of cultural appropriation.

However, it’s not those everyday instances of cultural appropriation—those instances where the cultures responsible for the numbers we use, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear are not acknowledged—that seem to get the most flack (either rightly or wrongly). Instead, it is making fun of or otherwise mocking a certain culture/group of people that gets the most flack. Such actions fit within the definition of cultural appropriation, but might also fall into the realm of another term I hear less often: cultural mockery. Cultural mockery happens when there is inappropriate misrepresentation, imitation, caricaturizing, or making fun of a culture. The “We swear we’ve got our green cards” incident at Dickinson would fall into the category of cultural mockery.

On the other hand, if we are “honoring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding,”[3] then it’s cultural appreciation. One common example I’ve seen of cultural appreciation is when someone makes the food of another culture (and not just food stereotyped as being from another culture) while explaining the history of the dish and how that dish became so important to the culture. Through that, something as simple as food can encompass not just food, but also the history of the culture (how the dish fits within the history of a culture), the types of crops that the culture relies on (the economy of the culture), and much more.

Some of us may unwittingly fall into cultural mockery—something that may happen with some frequency with the upcoming Cinco de Mayo. However, if we really want to aim to learn more about cultures outside our own, we should really strive for cultural appreciation, and for actually trying to learn more and understand more about the cultures we aren’t a part of.


[1] Click on the following link to learn about this controversy at my college, Dickinson: https://thedickinsonian.com/news/2015/09/15/photos-draw-anger-apology/

[2] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/cultural_appropriation

[3] https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/cultural-appropriation-or-appreciation/#:~:text=Cultural%20appropriation%20can%20be%20defined,to%20gain%20knowledge%20and%20understanding.

What Is…Medical Racism?

In the post I wrote a few weeks ago on racial inequity in COVID-19 vaccinations, I alluded to the history of the abuse of people of color by the medical field as a reason that some people of color may feel hesitant about the vaccine.

While I think it was important to talk about medical racism in my post from a few weeks ago, I think it is also important to dedicate a post all by itself to this topic, especially given the amount of attention this term has gotten in the past couple of weeks. Additionally, since it is Black History Month, it seems particularly timely to talk about this term now. As such, while medical racism was not among the terms I had initially planned to cover in my “what is” blog posts, I think it is important to cover this term.

But what is medical racism, and how has it manifested itself over the years?

In short, medical racism is “the systematic and wide-spread racism against people of color within the medical system.”[1] Racism against people of color within the medical system has taken a variety of forms over the past several hundred years in the United States, including, but not limited, to: policies that affect health outcomes disproportionately in communities of color, the disparity in health care coverage by race, biases held by healthcare workers against people of color, the use of the medical field as a means of harming people of color, and disproportionate use of people of color for experimental purposes in medicine.

The form of medical racism that involves policies affecting health outcomes disproportionately in communities of color is wide-ranging. It involves everything from the fact that unsafe water is much more common in communities of color than in white communities[2] to the building of highways through Black communities[3] (highways that would have an impact of pollution on said communities that got these highways[4]). Some of these policies might not always have in mind the intentional harming of health outcomes for people of color (though the building of highways in Black communities was in many cases intentional), but the result of such policies is harming people in communities of color.

Speaking of things that can negatively affect health outcomes for communities of color, one thing that can cause this is the disparity in health care coverage by race. I talked about this issue in my “Obamacare and Race” post a number of weeks ago, as there are particularly high uninsured rates among American Indians, Hispanics, and Blacks in particular. To Former President Obama’s credit, Obamacare has made that disparity somewhat less stark than it used to be, but it’s a disparity that still exists.

Even when people of color have health insurance, though, sometimes the doctors and healthcare workers that insurance covers can have biases against people of color. Sometimes that bias is explicit, but sometimes it can be implicit too, such as implicit preferences for white patients over Black ones,[5] false beliefs about the nature of how Black bodies are,[6] and the fact that many doctors don’t believe their patients of color when they say they are in pain (an issue particularly prominent with Black women).[7] This form of medical racism comes up every now and again, but especially in light of the painful COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a form of medical racism that really needs to be talked about thoroughly.

Sometimes, the medical field is used as a means of harming people of color, whether it be denying medical treatment available to others, or using medical treatment as a means of harming others. Both things happened with the way the American government in the 1830s handled smallpox in Native American populations. Initially, Native Americans were denied the access to smallpox treatments that whites got. However, many Native American populations later got this access when smallpox threatened removal of said populations to other lands.[8] In other words, denial of the smallpox treatments was initially used to harm Native Americans through suffering without medication, and then distribution of them was used to help accelerate the infamous Indian removals of the 1830s. I am sure there are other examples of this form of medical racism, but the example talked about in this paragraph is one that needs to be talked about more, in my humble opinion.

The final form of medical racism that I think is worth talking about is one that involves the disproportionate use of people of color for experimental purposes in medicine. This is when experimental medicines that are, these days, typically tested with a cross-section of people or with other animals get tested disproportionately on people of color. It was this form of medical racism that led to the exploitation of Black slaves in the medical field for the purposes of experimenting.[9] This form of medical racism was also involved in the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” a study where researchers told the people involved that they were being treated for “bad blood,” but in reality did not get treatment during what was a highly unethical and ultimately lethal study.[10] Some in the medical field suspect that many people of color are hesitant to participate in medical studies these days because of the legacy of how such experimental studies did so much harm to many people of color.[11]

The form of medical racism that seems to be talked about the most these days is the disproportionate use of people of color for experimental purposes in medicine. However, the reality is that medical racism can take so many other forms, as well—forms that ultimately can contribute to negative health outcomes.


[1] https://www.ywcaworks.org/blogs/firesteel/tue-07212020-0947/what-medical-racism

[2] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/unsafe-water-more-common-communities-color

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/feb/21/roads-nowhere-infrastructure-american-inequality

[4] https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/who-is-at-risk/highways

[5] https://www.businessinsider.com/biases-you-didnt-know-existed-in-the-medical-industry-2020-4#black-people-are-24-times-more-likely-to-die-from-the-coronavirus-4

[6] A study in 2016 found that half of white medical trainees held false race-based beliefs such as Blacks having thicker skin than whites: https://www.pnas.org/content/113/16/4296

[7] https://www.today.com/health/implicit-bias-medicine-how-it-hurts-black-women-t187866

[8] https://ais.arizona.edu/thesis/politics-disease-indian-vaccination-act-1832

[9] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32032-8/fulltext

[10] You can read about the long version of this story on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

[11] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/10/25/556673640/scientists-work-to-overcome-legacy-of-tuskegee-study-henrietta-lacks

What are…Calling Out and Calling In?

Some terms are criticized as social justice jargon. However, many of these terms are important to know about and understand. Two such terms are “calling out” and “calling in”—words that are often used right next to each other in many social justice circles.

But what is calling out, and what is calling in?

Calling out is when someone publicly points out that someone else is acting unjustly, while calling in is when someone privately points out to the unjust actor that they are acting unjustly. Both calling out and calling in involve pointing out someone else’s wrongful actions, but calling out has a different approach to handling someone else’s actions than calling in. Calling out and calling in have both their benefits and their limitations.

I’ve come to notice that “calling out” has a bad reputation, even in some social justice circles. The issue, as far as I can tell, is simply by virtue of the fact that calling out someone is humiliating for the person being called out. And it is true that being called out is humiliating—I know that because I have been called out on one or two occasions before and have felt rather embarrassed about my own injustice being laid bare for an audience to see. However, what people forget about the importance of what calling out is supposed to do is that the act is meant to do more than educate the person being called out about that person’s injustice—it is also supposed to educate everyone in the room about the injustice of the person, so that nobody else can repeat the same issue. While it may feel humiliating to be called out, believe me when I say that it can be for a greater purpose for all who listen—namely, making sure that the injustice you are believed to have committed is not repeated by other people.

While a lot of people prefer being called in to being called out (since being called in doesn’t involve the public humiliation of being called out), being called in has both benefits and limitations. In my experiences (I have been called in, as well, on a few occasions), being called in when you’re in a private setting can really give way for an opportunity to discuss at length about why you’re being unjust and how you can do better in ways you wouldn’t be able to discuss in the public “calling out” setting. The limitation, however, is that you’re only educating one person about an injustice when you’re calling in someone, while you’re educating dozens or hundreds of people about an injustice (or, if you have the national profile of someone like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, possibly millions[1]) when you’re calling out someone.

Regardless of the benefits and limitations of calling out and calling in, it is important to understand these two terms as approaches to tackling injustice within one or more people. After all, if the goal is to make the world a little more just, having a good understanding of both calling out and calling in, as well as recognizing the value of both approaches,[2] is important.


[1] Congressman Ted Yoho reportedly accosted Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez. AOC responded with this speech on the House floor. The speech, which is on C-Span’s YouTube channel, has nearly 3 million views as of the date of my writing this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI4ueUtkRQ0

[2] Some debate whether calling out or calling in is better. For the purposes of this post, I will not weigh in on that debate. However, I think it’s good to be aware of how both can be beneficial.