Research Spotlight: A conversation with Dr. OmiSoore Dryden

A Black queer femme, Dr. Dryden is the James R Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, Faculty of Medicine, and Associate Professor, Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University. She engages in interdisciplinary scholarship and research that focuses on Black LGBTQI people; blood donation; Black diasporic communities in Canada; systemic/structural issues that affect health and well-being; medical education; and critical race theory and Black health curricular content development. 

Dr. Dryden, tell us a little about you and your research.

I’m working on a number of research projects currently, including as Principal Investigator of #GotBlood2Give / #DuSangÀDonner a research project that seeks to identify the barriers Black gay, bisexual, and trans men encounter with donating blood and also analyzes how anti-black racism, colonialism, and sexual exceptionalism shapes the blood system in Canada. Most recently, as Principal Investigator on the project Don’t Count Us Out! – a community-informed, culturally sensitive approach to health promotion for African Nova Scotian communities with an initial focus on COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m also a content expert and Associate Scientist with the Maritime Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) SUPPORT Unit (MSSU). In that capacity, I provide guidance on Canadian Black Health metrics needed to inform the development of health policies and improve the health care system, this specifically focuses on survey data and demographic information, determinants of trust, sexual health and qualitative data collection and analysis. I’m currently the co-president of the Black Canadian Studies Association, a board member of the Health Association of African Canadians, the first Black board member of the NSHA, and the co-lead for the Black Health Education Collaborative.

Your research focuses on lived experience of Black Canadians in medical care and health care systems. Can you talk a little about the experiences Black people and predominately Black communities have during major health events, like the COVID-19 pandemic?

Due to systemic discrimination, when major health events occur, like the COVID-19 pandemic, those already placed in precarious positions are further at risk. As we wrote in this article, Black people tend to be employed in low-paying and highly feminized jobs: these include clerical jobs, janitorial staff, orderlies and nursing assistants who are now determined as essential services. Black people are also more likely to work in the grey and underground economy, which are forms of labour that might involve payments outside the regular labour force and taxation system, and not counted in GDP.

Systemic inequalities including being under-housed, under-and-precariously-employed, and living in food and health care deserts which have a cumulative affect that negatively impact the health and well-being of Black people and Black communities. While this is visible to many, it often only becomes visible to decision-makers during times of crisis, like the current pandemic.

The work you’ve done related to LGTBQ+ communities and blood donation is so important. How does this exclusivity impact the medical and mental health and wellness of Black people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum?

Unnecessary and questionable ‘safe-blood’ protocols have resulted in continued stigma and harm against Black LGBTQ+ communities. My focus in blood donation is to document the protocols of Canadian Blood Services which perpetuate anti-Black homophobic practices. This work began prior to my completing my PhD on anti-Black homophobia in Canadian Blood Services donor questionnaire and safe blood protocols.

These discriminatory practices create and perpetuate harm by targeting certain groups of people (focussing on identity) instead of screening for particular types of behaviour. The anti-Black racism and homophobia stigma that accompanies HIV and AIDS fears harms Black queer and trans communities in particular. These stereotypes of HIV and AIDS and blood donation do nothing to disrupt negative and false stories of transmission. Black gay and bisexual men found these barriers to be both unnecessary, imprudent and ill-considered. This blood donation practice (which has only partially been addressed) joins other ill-conceived practices including HIV criminalization which primarily targeted Black men.Black gay and bisexual men are already positioned as a high-risk community without taking into consideration how the social determinants of health, specifically racism and homophobia create health disparities and inequities. Anti-Black homophobia in all areas, including blood donation harms the mental health and wellness of Black LGBTQ populations.

What are some resources that other researchers can use to ensure their work is more inclusive?

There are some fantastic resources available. I would say that it is important to shift the thinking away from believing race is a biological determinant that impacts health. It is not race, but racism that we must focus on. Addressing anti-Black racism as a determinant that impacts health outcomes and fuels health disparities brings us closer to greater inclusion and equity goals. My article, written with my colleague Dr. Nnorom, “Time to dismantle systemic anti-Black racism in medicine in Canada” speaks to this. Of course, following OCAP principles is also vital and important.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion must be centred in commitments of anti-racism. If we are not centring the work to dismantle colonialism and anti-Black racism, then EDI work becomes performative—focussed on window dressing and not real change.

How can philanthropy (private dollars) help your research?

I appreciate philanthropic support I’ve received for me research. The private donors who have supported my research have been deeply committed to social justice and equity diversity and inclusion. They understand in the importance of supporting research that seeks to create a better life for us all—one that directly responds to and disrupts systemic racism and homophobia.