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Whiteness and the co-option of difference: The hegemonic language of health disparities and #HealthCommSoWhite

COVID-19 pamphlet in Bangla targeting migrant workers in Qatar

In a piece published in Communication Theory in 2007, titled "Communicating about culture and health: Theorizing culture-centered and cultural sensitivity approaches," I had outlined the hegemonic forms of co-option of culture into health communication. The dominant approach to health communication, embedded in the individualizing logic of whiteness, turns to cultural essentialism to target diverse cultures with messages that are supposedly aligned with cultural values. In this essay, I argued that this form of incorporating cultural values props up and reproduces the hegemony of whiteness, keeping intact its individualizing logics. 

The dominant approach to health communication  addressing health disparities falls within this cultural sensitivity framework. Cultural characteristics are extracted and then turned into the sites of targeting through communication messages that are designed to respond to the cultural values. For instance, health communication messages speaking to extracted cultural values of African American communities in the U.S. are designed to promote healthy eating behavior among African Americans. The cultural sensitivity approach, although dressed up in a culturalist narrative, is fundamentally racist because it reproduces the hegemonic values of whiteness, constructing diverse cultures as pathologies to be fixed through culturally sensitive messaging strategies.

Erased from the cultural sensitivity framework are the structures of whiteness and racism that shape the struggles at the raced, classes, gendered, colonized, migrant margins, and the many intersections of these identities. Erased are the poor housing conditions, lack of access to decent income, commoditization of food, privatization of healthcare, police racism, societal racism etc. that form the infrastructures of whiteness that fundamentally threaten health and wellbeing.

In the pamphlet targeting low-wage hyper-precarious Bengali workers with COVID-19 information discussed above, the consideration of culture turns into superficial translation and messaging strategies. As workers are recommended to practice individualized health behaviors, poor and crowded housing conditions, the everyday challenges to livelihood, the struggles with securing decent wage amidst COVID-19 are erased from the discursive space (see Dutta, 2020). The erasure of the poor and overcrowded housing conditions that fundamentally constitute the risks of spread of COVID-19 holds up the neoliberal structure of extraction and exploitation.

The culture-centered approach, emergent through the creation of community infrastructures for voice at the raced, classed, gendered, migrant margins, addresses the communicative inequalities in the infrastructures for voice. Health inequalities are situated amidst the interplays of communication inequalities and structural inequalities.

It argues that placing the power of theorizing in the hands of local and Indigenous communities of colour at the margins inverts the whiteness of hegemonic health communication by building theories of transformation embedded in the lived experiences and struggles at the margins. Theorizing community voice amidst the interplays of culture, structure and agency, it seeks to foster openings for communities at the margins to enact their agency through turning of the power of theorizing in the hands of communities. This recognition of community agency as the basis for generating theories of health communication fundamentally dismantles the cognitive injustice propped up by whiteness.

The process of cultural centering at the global margins is fundamentally about dismantling the structures of whiteness and the interconnected forms of neoliberal capitalism that produce health inequalities.

Cultural sensitivity constructs essentialist frames of culture, which are then co-opted into the hegemonic constructions of health to hold up #HealthCommSoWhite. It is vital to critically interrogate and dismantle the logics of cultural sensitivity to build infrastructures for voice that dismantle the structures of neoliberalism and whiteness.


Dutta, M. J. (2007). Communicating about culture and health: Theorizing culture-centered and cultural sensitivity approaches. Communication Theory17(3), 304-328.

Dutta, M. J. (2020). COVID-19, authoritarian neoliberalism, and precarious migrant work in Singapore: Structural violence and communicative inequality. Frontiers in Communication5, 58.

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