Did you know that low-income communities of color have 50 percent fewer grocery stores within the radius of their neighborhoods than their higher income, predominately white counterparts (Treuhaft &Karpyn, 2011)? Or that in low-income supermarkets there is 20 percent less produce available, and what is available is 30 percent more expensive (CCPHA, 2008)? Finally, are you aware that adults who live more than a mile away from a supermarket are 25 to 46 percent less likely to have a diet rich in nutrients, leading to an increased risk for developing diabetes, liver disease and heart disease (Treuhaft & Karpyn, 2011)? If you are like me, then your answer is probably no, you did not realize that this was the case.
The lack of food access in low-income, minority neighborhoods is an example of systemic racism. According to Marsiglia and Kulis (2009), systemic racism is a form of discrimination that has been adopted into the systems of our society and become commonplace. It seems fair to assert that most people who live outside urban areas do not realize that food access is even an issue: it is so ordinary that we don’t even consider the inequality behind it. Therefore, we are playing into systemic racism and we don’t even know it.
When we do gain awareness of the issue however, it can be tempting to find ways to rationalize it. For example, we may argue that cities have a lot less land to develop grocery stores on, that the stores really aren’t that much further apart, or that there are likely other reasons behind the poor health members of low-income minority neighborhoods face. By doing this, we are engaging in another form of racism: naturalization. Naturalization is a “frame to normalize events that could otherwise be interpreted as racially motivated” (Bonilla-Silvia, 2001, p. 134). When we are grabbing for excuses to explain why things are the way they are, we are attempting to naturalize the issue as opposed to trying to raise the awareness of it and fix it.
Systemic racism and naturalization are both on a slippery slope. Before we realize it, we may be engaging in one or the other. They are particularly tricky concepts because they are so subconscious that we usually aren’t aware when we are doing them. The best thing we can do is try to be as aware as possible, and make changes based on what is illuminated to us.
1. Treuhaft, S. & Karpyn A. (2011). The grocery gap: who has access to healthy food and why it matters. http://www.policylink.org/site/c.lkIXLbMNJrE/b.5860321/k.A5BD/The_Grocery_Gap.htm Downloaded on February 11, 2011.
2. California Center for Public Health Advocacy (2008). Designed for disease: the link between local food environments and obesity and diabetes. Davis, CA. Retrieved from http://www.policylink.org/documents/DesignedforDisease.pdf
3. Marsiglia, F. F., & Kulis, S. (2009). Diversity, oppression and change: Culturally grounded social work. Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books, Inc.
4. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001). Color-blind racism. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
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