by Sarah L. Berry, PhD

In April 2021, the CDC officially declared racism a public health threat. What does this mean, how did we get to this point, and how do the humanities offer ways to address this problem?

Racism is not part of US history; rather, it is US history. The 1619 project shows that the economic, political, legal, and social structures of the US were founded upon race-based slavery and colonialism. Inequity melded into national structure has a downstream effect on health for all citizens, but impacts BIPOC people disproportionately. 

According to the CDC’s statement on Racism and Health, centuries of race-based policies and practices “affecting where one lives, learns, works, worships and plays” created inequities in access to housing, education, wealth, and employment. “These conditions—often referred to as social determinants of health—are key drivers of health inequities within communities of color, placing those within these populations at greater risk for poor health outcomes.” Health inequities affect every dimension of daily life, including explicit and implicit bias in healthcare settings; access to care, physically, socially, and linguistically; trust in the medical profession; the health effects of internalized racism; exposure to race-based violence; somatic and behavioral responses to chronic experiences of racism and discrimination; and intergenerational, inheritable health effects of historical and personally-experienced racism.

Understanding the complex relations between race and health through a structural inequity framework highlights race as a social construction that has embodied and experienced consequences rather than as a biochemical (genetic) characteristic inherent to individuals or groups. We are still contending with inequities and harms resulting from the historical construction of race as a “natural,” medicalized category that explains health, illness, and care disparities. 

Yet precisely because race is a social concept with consequences lived by individual people who are part of communities, the humanities offer a way to address race as a public health threat with deep historical roots, to gather perspectives from people living in diverse communities, to identify community assets, and to imagine and build an equitable future for all. Health humanities offers us materials and methods for thinking critically about health and race, contextualizing data and patterns, learning from multiple perspectives, and productively dialoguing. 

First, a note on dialogue about challenging subjects like racism: it’s important to recognize that everyone brings different life experiences with them, and that these experiences as well as peoples’ identities will affect how they are able to receive and how they perceive the content. Respect for different identities or ways of being in the world is paramount. Equally important are promotion of self-care and holding space for all individuals in group settings. A guide to nonviolent communication and discussion practices is here.

Here are three starting points for dialogue and collective action for communities and organizations working to address inequity from the ground up. The text below and linked material contain content about racism and racialized experiences that may distress some readers. 

I. Into the Past: Inventing Racialized Bodies

Today’s federal categories of race, which medicine and population health research adopt, descend from Enlightenment taxonomies and colonial politics. In Who’s Black and Why, scholars Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  and Andrew S. Curran republish essays from 1739 that pinpoint imperial definitions of blackness in scientific terms. Such constructions served the interests of a global chattel slavery industry and profitable cash crops produced by enslaved labor. Poor health and illness caused by the conditions of enslavement were attributed to individuals and groups by means of biased measurement that was repeated and seemed to serve as empirical evidence. What is the enduring effect of this racist bias in health science? Consider the use of scientific measurements of blood oxygenation in enslaved people in Samuel Cartwright’s medical article (1851) and the development of an enduring medical technology, the spirometer, which continues to be calibrated differently according to race, according to scholar Lundy Braun in Breathing Race into the Machine (2021). This has serious therapeutic consequences.

Critical thinking about historical patterns also enables us to ask counterpoint questions. Were there any alternative or even antiracist ideas about the causes of health disparities? Survivors of enslavement wrote about their illnesses as conditions caused by inadequate basic needs and healthcare, violence, and stress, like Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs (1861). In 1906, Harvard-trained sociologist W.E.B. DuBois researched social determinants of health to oppose the dominant theory of somatic “inferiority” of Black Americans. 

Historical inquiry contextualizes current health disparities, and also provides precedents for antiracist responses to them.

II. Current Perspectives on Race and Health

Literature invites people to consider health, illness, and the social factors impacting them to gain new perspectives outside their own worldview. Rhetorical analysis also asks us to pay attention to who is speaking, on what occasion, to whom, and for what purpose. Critical race theory in literary studies is a rigorous method of structural analysis that, in part, privileges the perspectives of people of color who have been silenced and marginalized in print and public discourse. It prioritizes individual and community points of view to counter the dehumanization of describing health through statistics alone (see, for example, ethicist Keisha Ray, “Going Beyond the Data” [2021]). Overall, storytelling enables people to speak and listen with attention to the social identities that permeate everyone’s health and illness, and creates a forum for personal and shared testimonies. 

Racism has of course affected not only enslaved people of African descent, but also immigrant and indigenous communities. Here are three texts with prompts for discussion on specific health issues and their intricate relationship to racial identity:

The short story “Stars” by Ye Chun details the experience of Luyao’s stroke and aphasia as a new mother and new American; how does this story call out anti-Asian bias in US treatment regimens? How does the story affirm Luyao’s therapeutic inventiveness and make a case for person-centered, linguistically-consonant care?

In her memoir The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon, narrates her navigation of structural barriers to access education and medical education outside her reservation home, which is a legacy of colonial oppression of indigenous peoples. How does her perspective on Navajo health change when she returns to her home community to treat people with biomedical methods? How do Navajo concepts of community and social practices enable Dr. Alvord to innovate surgical outcomes to benefit all patients?

In “Greens,” a personal nonfiction essay, Kiese Laymon describes his own eating disorder and the addictions of his family members in Mississippi. He uses the second person “you,” to address his narrative to his mother. In an interview, he describes using this technique to intentionally speak to vulnerable Black people. How does this essay highlight the theme of physical and behavioral responses to racism? What points are asserted through its rhetorical structure in terms of whose health story is being told, to whom, and for what purpose(s)?

Finally, taken together, what do these three narratives suggest about health issues and/or assets among diverse US communities?

III. Envisioning Equitable Futures

Critical thinking about racialized experiences of health in the past and present enable us to imagine an equitable future for all. Science fiction abounds with dystopias that paint a bleak picture of the future, which often amplify acute present problems. The film Black Box (2020, dir. Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour) dramatizes a mother’s abuse of futuristic biotechnology in Black male bodies in response to losing her son. Chang-Rae Lee’s speculative novel On Such a Full Sea (2014) projects a future in which Chinese refugees of environmental toxicity produce consumer luxuries in a depopulated US city for wealthy gated communities hoarding medical treatments while rural areas must rely on veterinarians for human healthcare; see Phillip Barrish’s essay “Speculative Fiction and the Political Economy of Healthcare” (2019) for an argument about the power of the humanities to enable structural analysis of health inequity.

Dystopian fiction extrapolates the consequences of existing social inequity in order to urge reform. But speculative fiction also creates space for the ethical imagination of societies that have eliminated disparities and that structurally support health and wellbeing for all. Speculative world-building and constructing alternative realities can inform productive dialogue and collective action. Afrofuturism in particular reimagines the past, present, and future as a survival tactic. For example, in Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, scholar Esther L. Jones shows that the fiction of Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okrafor and Nalo Hopkinson “authoriz[e] black womanist methods and strategies of healing in hostile environments while at the same time imagining new ethical norms” that extend to all vulnerable people (147). According to Walidah Imarisha, an editor of the anthology of speculative tales by activists Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction.”  

The humanities play an essential role in dismantling structural inequity and addressing race-based health disparities. For more projects on health humanities as public health initiatives, see Translational Humanities for Public Health.


by Sophia Boutilier 

What’s the problem with microaggressions?

What makes microaggressions such a big deal? Aren’t they, by definition, micro in nature? Microaggressions are every day, routine, even unintentional, slights and exchanges that denigrate or single out individuals because of their group membership (Barthelemy et al 2016, Sue et al 2007). They are often ambiguous, subtle, and challenging to pinpoint (Jones et al 2017). Consequently, microaggressions end up as the quiet burden to bear of the people who are targeted (it’s just too much work to explain it to people who don’t get it), overlooked by others (who don’t get it), and left unchecked (because those in power can’t comprehend the problem). Yet this oversight directly contributes to the repeated incidence of microaggressions, a violence which is compounded by its invalidation as ‘no big deal’ by people who don’t have to experience it (a microaggression in itself!) (Sweet 2019).

The concept of death by a thousand cuts comes to mind, particularly if the doctor you went to see told you that you weren’t *really* bleeding. And it’s this insidiousness, this ability for microaggressions to fly under the radar of managers and supervisors, that makes them hard to diagnose and contributes to the perception that the aggressed are overreacting, hyper-sensitive, irrationally angry, or whining (Ahmed 2021, Jones et al 2017, Orelus 2013). The inability of members of the dominant group to identify a microaggression when it happens and to recognize the long line of similar slights to which a particular insult is just one more instance that further isolates the person coping with the aggression (Orelus 2013). Such an institutional environment makes reporting difficult, often protecting aggressors and causing targets of microaggressions to question their own perception of reality (Barthelemy et al 2016, Jones et al 2017, Solorzano 1998). It’s no wonder that repeated microaggressions negatively impact work performance for individuals on their receiving end and reinforce harmful and prejudicial stereotypes for the wider community (Sue et al 2007, Solorzano 1998).

What do they look like?

Because microaggressions can be difficult to spot from the outside, it is imperative to collect the stories and experiences of the people who experience them (Barthelemy et al 2016, Solorzano 1998). For example, three-quarters of women in a physics graduate program, a typically male-dominated field, experienced microaggressions including sexist jokes, sexual objectification, the assumption of their inferiority, as well as being ignored, passed over, or treated as invisible in their work environment (Barthelemy et al 2016). Although these instances were three times more common than “outright” or hostile sexism, women who reported sexist behavior were encouraged to overlook it or were ignored by supervisors. The denial of sexism dovetailed with the idea of science as neutral and having a ‘culture of no culture’, obscuring and perpetuating the ways women are sidelined in the field (Barthelemy et al 2016, Harding 1986, Des Jardins 2010). These women’s experiences are not isolated or unusual. They are common to male-dominated fields like STEM fields and speak to more general patterns of exclusion (Funk and Parker 2018).

A few other examples of microaggressions include:

  • Complimenting a scholar of color for being articulate as if it’s surprising that they are well spoken (Orelus 2013);
  • Assuming that people in fat or bigger bodies are unhealthy and/or being surprised that they are healthy or physically active (Gay 2017, Gordon 2021, West 2017);
  • Ignoring, interrupting, taking credit for, or downplaying the contributions of minority colleagues (Solorzano 1998);
  • Assuming that women or people of color know everything there is to know about women and people of color, and relying on them to educate others (Orelus 2013);
  • Asking a prospective female employee of childbearing age or who is currently pregnant what her “plans” are (Kitroeff and Silver-Greenberg 2018);
  • Referring to a male colleague as “assertive” while the same behavior by a female colleague is labelled as “loud” (Correll 2017);
  • Having lower expectations of minority students or co-workers (Solorzano 1998);
  • Asking someone who is not the visible norm where they are from (Wing et al 2007)

Why do they matter?

Experiencing the inconsiderateness of a colleague is of course not limited to the experiences of minorities. Anyone can be on the receiving end of rudeness (Fleming 2019). In contrast, microaggressions are chronic, repeated instances of deep social divisions. Although they might seem small, one-off events, situating them in a historical and contemporary context reveals longstanding patterns of discrimination (Solorzano 1998). By way of particularly stark example, both female scientists and university professors, and graduate students of color, report being treated like ‘second class citizens’ who didn’t belong in their institutions (Barthelemy et al 2016, Orelus 2013, Solorzano 1998). In both cases this treatment is rooted in a history where members of these groups were not just treated as second class citizens, but actually were second class citizens and accordingly denied human, civil and legal rights (Orelus 2013). In other words, microaggressions are simply the tip of an iceberg of historically and socially entrenched animus from which minorities endure a steady drip.

The concept of death by a thousand cuts comes to mind, particularly if the doctor you went to see told you that you weren’t really bleeding.

Despite their name, microaggressions have *macro* effects. Targets of microaggressions are more likely to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Berg 2006). In the face of routine slights and dismissals, women and people of color report constantly having to prove themselves at school and work and facing higher penalties for making mistakes than their colleagues (Madsen et al 2015). Consequences include reduced performance, lower satisfaction, and higher rates of burnout for individuals (Krivkovich et al 2018, Jones et al 2017, Martell et al 1996), as well as reduced profits, innovation, and productivity for organizations (Ferrary 2013, Funk and Parker 2018). When organizational norms and leadership fail to prevent microaggressions, their cultures discourage diversity and place an unfair burden on minority groups to cope silently with the stress of discrimination ((Jones et al 2017, Orelus 2013). Often these aggressions fail to meet legal thresholds for discrimination, leaving targets vulnerable to repeated abuse, and even contributing to the fiction held by some that racism and sexism are no longer common problems (Ferber 2012).

What can be done?

Discriminatory cultures are dynamic and interpersonal products which include targets, perpetrators, bystanders, and allies—all of whom have roles to play to change a biased climate (Jones et al 2017). More space needs to be made for marginalized groups to identify microaggressions and access channels to hold aggressors accountable (Barthelemy et al 2016). Shifting the culture to take seriously the experience of the person feeling aggressed, regardless of the intent of perpetrators is essential to challenge gaslighting and invalidation and to prevent aggressions before the point that reporting needs to take place (Applebaum 2010, Oluo 2017, Sweet 2019). Incentives and accountability can reduce the social costs associated with reporting (Sue et al 2017), especially in ambiguous situations which are both more common and harder to pinpoint (Shelton and Stewart 2004, Correll 2017). Restorative paradigms that emphasize addressing the harm rather than adjudicating if a policy was violated can reduce the adversarial nature of reporting and associated retaliation (Ahmed 2021, Hamad 2020, Wemmers 2017). Establishing dialogue and group problem-solving may also reduce barriers as research shows that women who have experienced bias are more likely to recognize bias directed at other women than directed at themselves (Jones et al 2017). Bringing employees together to share stories and solutions is often more effective to identify microaggressions than leaving targets to speak up for themselves individually (Summers-Effler 2002).

Even when targets call out racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, reporting will only work if aggressors can listen to and believe their colleagues and appreciate their experience of the exchange. This should also include equipping privileged persons (regardless of their history of perpetration) with the tools to deal with defensiveness, fear of being wrong, or disappointment that might result when they learn they have, perhaps unwittingly, participated in bias against a colleague. Bystanders may be effective at intervening and sanctioning the perpetrator, but such action does not guarantee higher levels of acceptance toward the target (Jones et al 2017). A multi-pronged approach is necessary. Training and actions for acknowledging and interrupting implicit bias (Perry et al 2015, Yen et al 2018) and revising workplace conventions for bias that may be ‘baked in’ (Correll 2017) are also important. The latter could be transformed through equitable and transparent distribution of opportunities and tasks, and intentional review of how work is assigned and evaluated (Blickenstaff 2005).


About the Author

Sophia Boutilier is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University. Her research focuses on the international development industry, inequalities, and social justice. She is particularly invested in scholarship that engages privileged groups to challenge their dominance in support of social change. In addition to her academic work, Sophia has authored policy documents on gender inequality and sexual violence prevention. She draws inspiration from her field experience as a development worker, and from the writing of critical race and feminist theorists.

Work Cited

Ahmed, S. (2021). Complaint!. Durham: Duke University Press.

Applebaum, B. (2010). Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Washington DC, Lexington Books.

Barthelemy, R. S., McCormick, M., & Henderson, C. (2016). Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2), 020119.

Berg, S. H. (2006). Everyday Sexism and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women: A correlational study. Violence Against Women, 12(10), 970–988.

Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). Women and science careers: leaky pipeline or gender filter? Gender and Education, 17(4), 369–386.

Correll, S. J. (2017). SWS 2016 Feminist Lecture: Reducing Gender Biases In Modern Workplaces: A Small Wins Approach to Organizational Change: Gender & Society.

Des Jardins, J. (2010). The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. New York, NY: The Feminist Press at CUNY.

Ferber, A. L. (n.d.). The Culture of Privilege: Color-blindness, Postfeminism, and Christonormativity. Journal of Social Issues, 68(1), 63–77.

Ferrary, M. (2013). Femina Index: Betting on Gender Diversity is a Profitable SRI strategy. Corporate Finance Review, 4, 12–17.

Fleming, C. M. (2019). How to be Less Stupid About Race. New York, NY. Beacon Press. 

Funk, C., & Parker, K. (2018, January 9). Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity. Retrieved July 1, 2018, from

Gay, R. (2017). Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Gordon, A. (2021). What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat. New York, NY. Beacon Press.

Hamad, R. (2020). White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color. Catapult.

Harding, S. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Jones, K. P., Arena, D. F., Nittrouer, C. L., Alonso, N. M., & Lindsey, A. P. (2017). Subtle Discrimination in the Workplace: A Vicious Cycle. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 10(01), 51–76.

Kitroeff, N., & Silver-Greenberg, J. (2018, June 15). Pregnancy Discrimination Is Rampant Inside America’s Biggest Companies. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Krivkovich, A., Robinson, K., Starikova, I., Valentino, R., & Yee, L. (2018). Women in the Workplace 2017. Retrieved July 1, 2018, from


Madsen, L. M., Holmegaard, H. T., & Ulriksen, L. (2015). Finding a way to belong: Negotiating gender at university STEM study programmes (p. 5). Presented at the NARST, Chicago. Retrieved from

Martell, R. F., Lane, D. M., & Emrich, C. (1996). Male-female differences: A computer simulation. American Psychologist, 51(2), 157–158.

Orelus, P. W. (2013). The Institutional Cost of Being a Professor of Color: Unveiling Micro-Aggression, Racial [In]visibility, and Racial Profiling through the Lens of Critical Race Theory. Current Issues in Education, 16(2).

Perry, S. P., Murphy, M. C., & Dovidio, J. F. (2015). Modern prejudice: Subtle, but unconscious? The role of Bias Awareness in Whites’ perceptions of personal and others’ biases. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 61, 64–78.

Shelton, J. N., & Stewart, R. E. (2004). Confronting Perpetrators of Prejudice: The Inhibitory Effects of Social Costs. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(3), 215–223.

Solorzano, D. G. (1998). Critical race theory, race and gender microaggressions, and the experience of Chicana and Chicano scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 121–136.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. The American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.

Summers-Effler, E. (2002). The Micro Potential for Social Change: Emotion, Consciousness, and Social Movement Formation. Sociological Theory, 20(1), 41–60.

Sweet, P. L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review84(5), 851-875.

Uluo, I. (2017). So You Want to Talk About Race. Retrieved from

Wemmers, J.-A. M. (2017). Victimology: A Canadian Perspective. University of Toronto Press. 

West, L. (2017). Shrill. Hachette Books.

Wing, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, Esquilin (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, 62, 4, 271-286 

Yen, J., Durrheim, K., & Tafarodi, R. W. (2018). “I”m happy to own my implicit biases’: Public encounters with the implicit association test. The British Journal of Social Psychology.


by Terry Barr

In William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August, a man named Joe Christmas, whose racial identity sits at the center of the work, asks the following question of the middle-aged woman who has become his lover and whom he will later kill: 

“Just when do men who have different blood in them stop hating one another…” (249). 

That we still don’t have an answer to his question in 2021 is profoundly troubling. In the course I will discuss momentarily, we will almost certainly fail to provide any comforting or enlightening answers. Nevertheless, we’ll keep trying.

I have been a Professor of English for the last thirty-four years at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, a private, liberal arts college, drawing students mainly form the deep southeast. My Senior Capstone seminar focuses on American Literature and Racial Identity, using three texts: Faulkner’s Light in August, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Each of these novels explores a character or characters who are caught in a racial limbo. Some know their parentage and its mixed racial makeup; others have no clear idea of their racial background but have heard rumors. All are caught in a society where racial identity is a life or death matter.

Our class meets twice a week for the first six weeks of the term, and in those weeks, we talk about the theme as it applies to these novels, slowly building in research from critical sources. The students will write 500-word responses to two of the novels as part of their requirement, and they will also select a critical essay on one of the novels and make a presentation on that essay as it pertains to racial identity.

In consultation with me, each student will then come up with a central research question that he or she will pursue independently for the next several weeks, eventually turning that question into a thesis. The students are free to select one or more of the novels we’ve discussed in class, though they are not strictly bound to these texts, or to literature per se. They are free to pursue film and music, too. I can see the recent comic books-turned-films like Black Panther and The Watchmen bearing bittersweet and strange fruit for this topic. With their research, the students will write a MLA documented essay roughly fifteen pages long, and then present their research on Honors Day to the rest of the English Department and to anyone else in the college community who chooses to attend.

Our college, like many in these times, has had intense and ongoing discussions about racial diversity and what that looks like and means today. We are a very “white” college, and so as I considered the theme for this year’s seminar, Racial Identity seemed a timely choice, especially given the history of the American South and its reluctance, recalcitrance, in seeking racial equality.

As we discuss these works, I have asked the students to consider the following questions:

  1. Who in our culture gets to determine Racial Identity, and how has this group/person been allowed to make such determinations?
  2. What do we know about our own racial identity, our family’s genetic and historical background?
  3. As a child, were you given sets of social evils or taboos? If so, what were they?
  4. Has a racial hierarchy ever been suggested or imposed on you?
  5. Do you believe that you have benefitted from racial privilege? If so, how?
  6. How would you rank the social acts that most horrify you, or the ones that bestow on you the most honor or gratification?
  7. How would your family members react if you decided to date or marry someone of a different race?

I have six students in the seminar, and all are Caucasian. Because of the above questions, our discussions have been open, I believe, and frank. How would such discussions differ if one or more of the students were African American? While there is no way to know how we might alter or filter our views were we to have African American students in the class, we have at least addressed this issue, noting the problems of white people alone, trying to determine the factors that contribute to our racial misunderstanding of each other.

In our last class, we discussed the problematic scene in Light in August in which Joe Christmas, as an orphaned child, follows an African American yard man across the orphanage grounds. Joe has already been called “nigger” by both children and adults, though they do so only because Joe is different, a new boy alien to them; a loner who often finds himself in places he shouldn’t be, and who seems to harbor secrets. They are trying to put him in his place by using the most dehumanizing word anyone in that era who is white could call anyone else who is white, or black. And so, in his racial confusion, Joe follows the only black man he knows:

“‘What you watching me for boy?’ And he said ‘How come you are a nigger?’ And the nigger said ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard?’ And he says ‘I aint a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won’t never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you won’t never know’ and he says ‘God aint no nigger’ and the nigger says ‘I reckon you ought to know what God is, because don’t nobody but God know what you is…’” (383-4).

The yard man is more prescient than he knows. For most of the novel, Joe wonders about his racial identity, believing and telling many that he might have some Negro blood in him. He will ultimately be lynched when the town discovers that he’s both been a lover to and killed a white woman. The lynching occurs because Joe’s colleague, “Joe Brown,” has told the sheriff that Christmas is “ a nigger.” From that moment, the TOWN decries that “that nigger Christmas” can’t be allowed to get away with his crime, even though the TOWN has never accepted the woman in question because she’s a northern transplant—a Yankee and an Abolitionist. 

Still, it’s Christmas who most confuses them:

“He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad” (350).

But what if he’s neither?

Ultimately, we learn that no one really knows whether the man who impregnated Joe’s mother was Black, or a Mexican, or fully White. Joe himself dies without ever knowing, but to the town and everyone else who knows him, he has forever been deemed Black.

For my students, one of the other central questions this novel raises is the role of religion in determining or interpreting racial identity. Joe is adopted by a strict Calvinist family, the father attempting to beat the fear of God into Joe. Not only doesn’t he succeed, but we know that the orphanage that places Joe in this family does so with the belief that Joe is a racially Black child. They “lie” to Joe’s new father in order to keep Joe from being sent to the Black orphanage. They claim to be trying to save the little boy.

So they lie, and the Calvinist father never knows the lie. At this point, we ask about Christianity’s role in southern racial relations. How did/have so many Southern Protestants made peace with segregation, racial superiority and hierarchy? The novel also includes a defrocked Presbyterian minister who helps us consider this and many other religious and moral questions about the inadequacy and the impotency of religion’s response in considering those outside of the racial norm. And in some cases, religion’s clear persecution of and urging crucifixion on people like Joe Christmas who outrage the religious folk by refusing to accommodate them and stay within the boundaries of boldly-marked racial identities. That Christmas might also be a Christ-figure causes us to consider Christ’s skin color and wonder about the racial category he would have been consigned to in the American South

Christmas has tried to pass as white and even as black. So, too, do two of the central characters in Senna’s Caucasia: the white mother, Sandy Lee, daughter of well-respected WASPish Cambridge socialites, and her paler daughter, Birdie. Sandy and Birdie go on the run, hiding in “caucasia” due to Sandy’s indiscretions with radical, post-1960’s revolutionaries. Because Birdie’s skin color is a bit off-white, Sandy tells everyone in white America that Birdie’s father is Jewish. Meanwhile, Sandy’s African American husband, Deck, and their older darker daughter, Cole, fade into the novel’s background, perhaps passing as the saner, if not more law-abiding pair. The burden is on Birdie, however, to come to terms with all that she is, all that society deems she should be, and what she in fact wants to be.

As a student put it in class today, regarding Birdie and her sister Cole: “How do we blend in to society when we already stand out?”

Caucasia is a novel of inversion, of viewing the negative of a photograph instead of the positive, the “norm.” And in this metaphor, we can understand negative and positive as exactly the value judgments historically deemed on those of mixed racial identity by our society.

The Vanishing Half affords comparisons to Caucasia and allows students to pair the two more closely to analyze the ways sisters, in this case twin sisters, confront or flee their racial identity. How does America force us to define ourselves because of, or despite, whom America would rather we be?

So far, my students have been up to the task of engaging in this theme. I can’t know all they’re thinking and maybe will never know. But I see their faces; I see how deeply they are thinking, and I look forward to their research and the studies they’ll present. I hope the course will change us and help us think even more deeply about who we are and how we can continue to engage with the racial identities imposed on all of us.

Works Cited

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Faulkner, William. Light In August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

About the Author

Terry Barr is a Professor of English at Presbyterian College, specializing in Modern Literature, Creative Writing, and Southern Studies. His three essay collections, published by Red Hawk Press, are available from Amazon, and he writes regularly at about music and food culture. He lives in Greenville, Sc, with his family.


By Biko Agozino

How do you pronounce the name that Massachusetts Patriots gave to themselves and that is now retained as the Mascot for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst football team? Is it Minutemen as in men who were ready at a minute’s notice to answer the call to defend their independence or is it ‘Mainutemen’, or little guys who were taking on the mighty British empire?

American students and colleagues always giggle and roll their eyes when I pronounce it as mainute or  and occasionally they offer to correct my strange foreign accent. I smile and use it as a teaching moment to explain my different understanding of the name. To this they often throw up their hands and say that I might be right. Now I want to throw the challenge open to UM Amherst community to see if they have been pronouncing their historic name wrong all these years.

Lexington Minuteman Monument

In his book, The African American People: A Global History, Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University adopted the temporal definition that the Minutemen were men who were ready at a minute’s notice. However, Mark Kulansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, gives a clue that supports my Little Guys interpretation of the iconic name.

The story goes that the first skirmish of the revolutionary war took place when little children saw the Red Coats marching past and started pelting them with snowballs. The British troops retaliated and started chasing after the children like bullies.

The parents heard the screams of the kids and came out to defend the little guys. From that day, they adopted the name—Minutemen (perhaps) because they were not highly educated and could not tell the difference between the pronunciation of minute as in little and minute as in time. And being chauvinist, they did not care to mention the women who may have been the first to rush out at the cry of their children. In those days, the word ‘men’ embraced women and so the women who fought in the revolutionary war had to cross-dress like men to be accepted and respected as equal members of the militia.

Asante also highlighted the story of free Black men, like Mr. Salem, who joined the Minutemen from the start to fight against the British colonizers. This may be an indication that there were children of African descent among those children that waged war with snow balls against the British empire.

Free or enslaved, people of African descent were generally known as ‘inferior and subordinate beings’ under the law and it was normal for even grown men to be called boys and treated as little guys in those days and long after.

Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the war of independence but there must have been more like him given that an estimated 500,000 people of African descent lived in the colonies at that time, according to Asante.

If you agree with me, next time the Minutemen play a game, remind the television and radio announcers that the correct pronunciation is Mainute Men. Also, what do you call your female teams or female members of the revolutionary militia? Minutewomen as in Little Women?

About the Autor

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, 562 McBryde Hall, 225 Stanger Street, Blacksburg, VA 24061, 540-231-7699,