White Faculty and Staff at PCOM Address Biases Through ‘Unlearning Racism’ Program

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At the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), White faculty and staff are working to address their biases and discuss their perceptions of race and White privilege through a unique endeavor known as Unlearning Racism.

This innovative program was born out of a series of discussions hosted by PCOM’s Office of Diversity and Community Relations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The conversations tasked faculty and staff with reflecting on issues of race and social justice in facilitator-led small groups. One of the facilitators, Ellen Greenberg, a PCOM Organizational Development and Leadership program faculty member, was randomly paired with an all-White group of participants. After the discussion, Greenberg — who is White — reflected that the racial makeup of the group made it possible for members to discuss issues of race without placing undue burdens on their colleagues of color.

“As White people, we often want to understand and we want to do better, but we put the burden on people of color to teach us or help us,” Greenberg says. “So, we just wanted to shift that dynamic and really look to learn together as opposed to putting more emotional labor on our colleagues and friends of color.”

Greenberg used that idea as a starting point when working with Alicia Hahn-Murphy, assistant director of diversity and community relations, and Marcine Pickron-Davis, PhD, chief diversity and community relations officer, to develop the Unlearning Racism program. The initiative began as a 12-week series of workshops for White faculty and staff to address their own biases, learn about systemic racism, build skills for cross-cultural dialogue, and develop action plans to become better allies and address inequities within health care education.

“There seemed to be this level of comfort where people could be vulnerable because there was a shared experience among that group,” says Pickron-Davis. “That was the impetus of [the program] — just giving White people the opportunity to unpack and unlearn racism, in particular those who are supervising people of color and those who have cultural differences.”

Launched in 2020, the program is now in its third cohort. Eventually, PCOM hopes to expand Unlearning Racism to include students as well. Its key elements are reading, personal reflection, and small group discussions. These conversations are heavily focused on the ways in which participants were socialized as children and how those experiences influenced their worldviews and perceptions of race. Members read the novel Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad and are asked to reflect on the work and use it to explore their own biases and privilege. The program also utilizes numerous podcasts, videos, and articles that touch on race and Whiteness. 

“One thing that I see happening in all of the cohorts is that folks are able to really push through the shame and defensiveness — particularly when they’re reading the first half of the book around White privilege, stereotypes, and anti-Blackness — to get to a point where they can discuss action,” Hahn-Murphy says.

Although programs like Unlearning Racism are valuable for many disciplines, they are especially vital in health professions education because of the long-standing cultural disconnect between the medical community and communities of color. When discussing the program’s importance for health care education, Jackie Werner, a participant and scholarly communications and research librarian at PCOM, referred to a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That research found that nearly half of White medical students and residents surveyed believed that Black patients felt less pain than White patients, among other falsehoods.

“That is just a really stark example of how unexamined racism can easily affect the kind of care that you’re giving,” Werner explains. “For us, the faculty and staff who are teaching students who are going to treat patients, it is just incredibly important for them to realize those unexamined biases.”

Two other program participants, Douglas J. Koch, EdD, the associate director of teaching and learning at PCOM’s biomedical sciences department, and Brandy Sreenilayam, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and cellular genetics at PCOM South Georgia, said the program taught them to re-examine how race is used in classroom examples, models, and case studies. Koch, who assesses and approves exam questions, said that there is now a concerted effort to ensure that case study questions do not reinforce negative stereotypes. For her part, since participating in Unlearning Racism, Sreenilayam has worked with the Dermatology Club on campus to increase the use of pictures of different skin colors in dermatology classrooms.

“We need to educate our students, because they are going to treat all kinds of patients,” Sreenilayam says. “It’s our job as educators of future physicians to teach them that these issues are out there, because they are our future for change.”

Erik Cliburn is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine is a 2015 recipient of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award and a 2016-2021 recipient of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Health Professions HEED Award.

This article was published in our December 2021 issue.