Were you ever a smoker? I was.
The recent news stories about the dangers of e-cigarettes have made me think about that time in my life.
I grew up in Virginia, a major tobacco-growing state. In fact, it was only recently that marijuana pushed tobacco to number two in the list of Virginia’s cash crops. When I was growing up, Richmond was home to the Philip Morris Tobacco Company. A huge, cigarette-shaped edifice, with the logos of Marlboro and other top brands plastered over the structure, hovered outside of the main plant, alongside U.S. Route 95, a major north-south highway. It was iconic. Everyone could see it. Philip Morris was a significant employer in the area and even gave free cigarettes to employees. Every October until 1984, Richmond acknowledged its cash crop with an enormous parade, the Tobacco Festival Parade. Frank Sinatra was the parade’s Grand Marshall in 1948. It was just that big.
My parents smoked. Their friends smoked. Not only was there no stigma to smoking when I was growing up, it was almost expected. But I may not have smoked if I hadn’t had a cigarette-smoking roommate in college who looked incredibly sophisticated and just plain cool as she held a cigarette.
Now, I haven’t had a cigarette in almost forty years.
One day a few months after I quit, I came into my apartment and realized just how foul it smelled. The stench of smoke was not clear to me until weeks after I stopped. It clung to me and had been there all along. I just didn’t know it.
So why am I telling you this? There is a stench to racism, too. Many just haven’t been able to “smell” it until recently. Now, some – a growing number — are seeing it, understanding it, and they are quitting.
Yes, I see the trajectory to non-smoking in America as very similar to the path to understanding and addressing racism.
Almost 72% of American men and 55% of women smoked in 1980 when I stopped. Smoking was embedded in our world. No one really thought much about it. It was almost invisible, like racism, particularly structural racism.
I was too young to notice when Congress first warned of the dangers of smoking in 1965. I was nominally aware when the health warning appeared on cigarette packages and when cigarette advertising was banned from television in 1970, but I didn’t stop smoking then. The dangers of it were still too far removed. I began to pay attention when a family member died from lung cancer. Yet it took the proliferation of messages in the popular media along with personal situations to get me—and many like me—to finally stop smoking. That constant drumbeat, the layering of messages from many people and sources, is what finally made me quit and led to widespread public policy like the smoking bans that we see today.
This is the same path to understanding and addressing structural racism and implicit bias.
We are at the point in our nation’s history where we are beginning to recognize the dangers of racism. Many reports have been released that speak to its deleterious impact not just on people of color, but on all people. I don’t believe that such a report has been released by the U. S. Surgeon General, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has cited racism as a “socially transmitted disease, passed down through generations, leading to the inequities observed in our population today.” The American Academy of Pediatrics is not alone; group after group is offering societal warnings. They are becoming cumulative, and they are becoming mainstream.
I needed personal situations along with research data to push me to stop smoking. Personal instances of structural racism and implicit bias are directly affecting many in America. And while the effect of smoking on me wasn’t known any farther than my family and close friends, cell phone videos and social media are broadening the sharing and the impact of personal stories of racism. We know their names.
Americans still smoke—16.7% of men and 13.6% of women—but you notice smokers and wonder why they are doing something so detrimental to their own health and to the quality of the air we all breathe.
And we are noticing racism more. It is important that questions were raised about the recent sentencing of a white women, Felicity Huffman, in comparison to that of a black woman, Kelly Williams-Bolar, both mothers seeking better educational opportunities for their children. It wasn’t until recently that such a racial equity lens would have been applied.
Like smoking, it is unlikely that racism will ever be totally gone from society, but we must remain vigilant and continue to notice, to talk about the dangers and to act, individually and societally, against it. It’s not enough for you to just notice your own racially-charged actions and quit, so to speak, you must encourage others to quit as well. You must use your voice to be a part of that needed plethora of messages. As Ibram Kendi, author of How To Be An Anti-Racist, cautions, it isn’t sufficient to not be a racist, you must actively be an anti-racist.
One day someone will start a post (or whatever the then-current form of popular social media will be) with “Have you always been an anti-racist? I wasn’t,” as they recount their personal story of understanding and then working against racism in America. And that might be a signal we have turned a corner and made significant improvement toward acknowledging and then reducing structural racism and racial inequity.