At the approach of her daughter’s 9th birthday last week, Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara sent her daughter to school with party invitations in bright yellow and white envelopes for her close friends.
But the daughter still had one of the invitations when she returned home. Her explanation pained Opara as both a Black mother and a physician researcher who studies systemic racism in health care.
“She said this person will not be able to come because their grandfather does not like black people,” Opara told The Daily Beast.
Opara, who is 41 and lives in metropolitan Detroit, experienced what she later described as a deep, heavy sorrow.
“Not because of the surprise of people being racist, but because of my child’s loss of innocence, being directly exposed to the violence of racism,” Opara recalled. “Her need to grow up real fast.”
Opara paused before saying anything to the girl.
“I had to deal with my own feelings of sorrow and anger and make sure I am responding with the best example of how you [should] respond,” she said.
But before Opara spoke, her daughter responded exactly how the mother would have hoped.
“She said ‘I know it’s racist, and I told [the classmate] so,’” Opara recalled.
Opara gave her daughter what she terms “soul therapy.”
“Self-love, but also community love,” Opara said. “Letting her know that she’s awesome and great and she comes from a long line of awesome and great people.”
In her work at Wayne State University School of Medicine, where she is founder and director of the Health Equity Justice & Antiracism program, Opara studies what might be called critical race reality. She in particular addressed the persistence of a bogus belief that there are biological differences between Black and white people even though studies of the human genome have definitively proven otherwise.
“There is nothing theoretical about it,” Opara said.
This illusion of race-based differences affects everything from health insurance company algorithms to organ transplant lists to pulmonary rehab after COVID. Doctors have long applied bogus “race corrections” for such measurements as lung capacity and kidney function. The result can be critical delays in treatment, sometimes to a point at which the patient is beyond saving.
And, Opara says, disparate outcomes are too often ascribed to race rather than to systemic disparities in “resources such as quality food, quality health care, quality education.”
“Racism is a risk factor, not race,” Opara told The Daily Beast.
Now undeniable racism had arisen in response to an invitation to her daughter’s birthday party. Opara expressed her deep sadness on Twitter.
“I wasn’t prepared for the sorrow that swelled in my chest when my daughter returned a birthday invitation card I’d given her to give one of her classmates for her birthday this weekend saying, “Sam’s (not their real name) grandfather doesn’t like Black People.”
She quickly received more than 100 replies to her tweet, many offering to send her daughter a card. Several of those who responded had encountered racism at a similar age.
A fellow Black woman wrote, “I’m so sorry, sis. It pains me that she experienced this (I did, too, around her age). She’s so blessed to have a mother who is loving and intentional, and understands the importance of cultivating a space of emotional safety and care.”
Opara replied, “Thank you my love my heart breaks for 8 yr old you.”
A fellow Black doctor wrote, “I hate this so much. I remember what this felt like as a kid.”
A public health care worker said, “I’m so sorry. There really aren’t any words that make that make that less ugly.”
Another doctor said simply, “Utterly speechless.”
Opara responded, “Yup. It’s real out here in these streets.”
Another doctor said, “I keep trying to think of words but there are no words to capture the way this tweet hit me so hard. Happy birthday to your little. May she soar beyond this badness and reach the heights that she is destined to reach.
Yet another doctor said, ”I just read this. And ppl still want us to believe that kids are too young to learn about racism. But it’s OK for our kids to experience it. Sending you both love. I know her amazing mother is holding it down.”
A public health expert posted, “Full mom-rage mode engaged. I’m so sorry.”
Opara replied, “mom rage is real & not to be toyed with.”
A Black dad wrote, “It’s so tiring and sad. My son told me he is glad I prepared him with the talks we had when young. It shouldn’t have to be this way.”
A number of people asked to send the daughter birthday cards.
“This hurts my heart so much,” one person wrote. “ Let’s do a birthday blitz and send her cards from around the world!
“Will send P.O. Box info for your cards on your request via DM,” Opara replied. We’re not shy about receiving love in this house!”
The outpouring caused Opara to recall a proverb of the Igbo people in her native Nigeria: “Someone who has people is richer than someone who has money.”
The party was on Saturday, beginning with games at the Dave & Busters arcade, followed by a perfect meal at home.
“Pizza, vanilla and chocolate cupcakes and ice cream with chocolate chip cookies,” Opara said. “Then they ran around the house and it was a huge success.”
She added, “The sugar high was real.”