Visitor Spotlight: Tanisha Spratt

Written by
Aimee Bronfeld, Center for Health and Wellbeing
May 2, 2023

Tanisha Spratt, a medical sociologist and visiting research scholar at the Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW), was 17 years old when a piece of American literature “changed everything.” She credits Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” with transforming her views on racism and revealing the fascinating relationships between self-perception, social constructs, and personal wellbeing – concepts that have permeated her work over the past 15 years.

In a recent interview, Spratt, assistant professor in sociology at University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom, shares her background and academic ambitions. At the heart of her research is the desire to understand how social determinants of health, such as racism and class, impact health outcomes and disproportionately affect marginalized populations. 

Q. You earned a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and a master’s degree in North American studies before pivoting to sociology for your Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. What drove your initial pursuits?

A. I studied English and American literature because I’ve always loved to read. I had the opportunity, privilege, and support system that allowed me to explore my interests and then figure out where I was going. Also, I’ve always been curious about my own background, and how I came to be. My dad is African American and my mom is white and British. I have dual citizenship, so even though I grew up in the U.K. I also spent a lot of time visiting the United States. I picked up on things that were different in both contexts at a very young age.

I was particularly engaged with African American literature, mainly because of Toni Morrison and her early fiction. I read her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” shortly before applying to university, and it was an absolute game changer for me in terms of my research interests and trajectory.

Q. Can you elaborate on why Morrison was such an influential figure in your education and career?

A. Toni Morrison grapples with important questions related to things like internalized racism and colorism in her work. In “The Bluest Eye,” the main character, named Pecola, is a dark-skinned young girl who prays for blue eyes. Growing up in the 1940s, around children like Shirley Temple, she believes that having blue eyes will allow her to see the world in a way that’s beautiful and that she will, in turn, be seen as beautiful, which will likely change everything for her. Tragically, she develops severe mental ill health at the end of the novel, which really struck me.

The novel demonstrates the power of how you’re seen. It shows how those views affect self-esteem and perceptions of self, and how that, in turn, shapes your health as you go through life. I wasn’t intellectually developed enough at 17 years of age to see those connections, but the book really influenced my thinking on the topic. Looking back, I don’t believe that the work I do now would be possible if I hadn’t read Toni Morrison’s fiction.

Q. Why did you transition to sociology?

A. The way that I think about and practice sociology is extremely interdisciplinary; I don’t see English, history, and sociology as very separate. For example, fiction is sociological because authors tend to write about what they know, and what they know is often rooted in what they see and experience. Even in the Harry Potter novels, those characters are based on people, those settings are based on places where J.K. Rowling has been; they come from Rowling's imagination, but they’re still grounded in something experienced. Within multi-disciplinary settings scholars are often interested in the same topics but ask different questions. I’m interested in all of the questions, with a focus on sociology and health.

Q. What led you to a career in higher education?

A. As a junior undergrad, I spent a year at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. I took a class on the Harlem Renaissance with this amazing professor, Professor Gayle Pemberton. She would bring us cookies, and we’d sit around a table and talk about all of these incredible books. I had an epiphany moment where I looked at her and thought, “you’ve got the best job in the world!” You get to read and write and think all day and then talk to students about it. That was definitely when I realized that I wanted a career in higher education, where I could engage, teach, and learn.

Q. What is the overarching theme of your research?

A. The thread that runs through all my work is the concept of (in)visibility – how you’re seen, how you see yourself, and how that relates to things like racial belonging, group categorization, and intersectionality. The umbrella, or quick-fire explanation of my research is that it explores how self-presentation impacts health outcomes, with a focus on racial disparities and social inequality.

Neoliberalism is at the core of my research because I’m interested in ideas of individual responsibility and what it means to assume responsibility for your own health – particularly when you live in an environment that isn’t conducive to good health. For example, if you live in an environment that is racist, what does it mean for you to assume responsibility for health outcomes when they’re related to racism-induced stress? Should it be on you as an individual to do that, or should it be on society to change the conditions that are making you unhealthy? What about things like access to health care, housing, and healthy foods, and other social determinants of health that are often beyond individual control because we live in societies that promote inequitable systems? We might be able to move into areas that give us more autonomy if we have the means and the capital to do so. But if we don’t, then we live in societies that essentially make these decisions for us.

Q. You also express an interest in public policy. Can you explain why you’ve brought that into the fold?

A. Public policy is an important part of the conversation. As an example, I published a paper last year with my colleague, Luna Dolezal, which looked at the U.K.’s “Tackling Obesity” campaign. Like many public health campaigns targeting obesity, the campaign framed obesity as a problem that could be solved by moving more and eating less. It was presented within the context of Covid-19 and the National Health Service (NHS) in England, urging people to take responsibility for their health during an unprecedented public health crisis that was putting a lot of pressure on the health system. At the same time, people were incentivized to eat out in order to support the economy. By doing so, however, they were potentially eating unhealthy foods that were contributing to the public health problem that the U.K. was trying to address.

Neither of those policies considered the impact of lockdowns, unemployment, welfare dependency, or other factors that made it more difficult for people to eat healthier (and often more expensive) food, to exercise, or to go to restaurants. They failed to consider the practical needs and limitations of the most vulnerable segments of the population, and the struggles of those who face structural and systemic barriers that are beyond their control. In a sense, the policies were contradictory and fed into public narratives that pushed agendas that did not necessarily benefit the health of everyone. I’m hopeful that my research will inform policies that positively and more equitably influence health outcomes and quality of life for marginalized groups.

Q. What brought you to Princeton and the Center for Health and Wellbeing?

A. In the fall of 2021, I had just moved to London and started a new job. I was excited but felt as though I needed to do something to shake things up after the pandemic. That’s when I came across the visiting research fellowship opportunity at Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing. It was perfect for so many reasons – the institution’s reputation, the people, and the Center’s health- and policy-focused work. So I applied. Honestly, I felt like I was playing the lottery. Never in a million years did I expect everything to work out. But here I am!

Q. What are you working on during your time here?

A. The main project I’m working on is a book about grievability and issues around personal responsibility and health. Grievability, a term coined by Judith Butler, an American philosopher and gender theorist, addresses the political implications of who and why we grieve. Butler makes the point that some lives are deemed worthy of mourning after they are lost, whilst others are not. My book examines this concept by using six case studies that consider questions of resilience, health, deservedness, “good citizenship,” and other tenets of neoliberalism. The manuscript will be published by Bloomsbury next year.

I’m also working on a paper addressing the relationship between colorism and health outcomes in Black British communities. It’s based on a study that investigates how differences in skin color within racialized groups influence the rate at which they experience racial discrimination, and how that negatively or positively influences their long-term health outcomes. Once the paper is submitted, I will apply for a larger grant to expand this line of research and study the relationships between colorism and health outcomes in other racialized groups in the U.S. and U.K., including South Asian, East Asian, and Native American people. I’m hopeful that this body of work will have policy implications and lead to effective health interventions for the marginalized groups I’m focusing on.

Q. What have you enjoyed most about your visit to Princeton, thus far?

A. I’m enjoying everything! If I were to pick some highlights, I’d point to the two classes that I’m auditing. One is a medical anthropology class taught by Professor Carolyn Rouse, and the other is called Methods of World Building with Professor Ruha Benjamin. It’s been such a privilege to sit in their classrooms. Both classes are fantastic and have helped me to develop my thinking around the research I’m doing here.

I’ve also attended fascinating talks hosted across the University. Toni Morrison’s recent symposium was just amazing and one of the many reasons that I’m so excited to be at Princeton.

Q. Are there any forthcoming opportunities or projects that you’d like to share?

A. In August, I will be joining the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London, where I’ll be a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in racism and health. My new appointment will allow me to develop key interests and research examining issues related to health equity and social justice, particularly as it relates to how racism negatively impacts health outcomes.

For example, I just started a project examining the idea of “Black joy” as a health intervention. “Black joy” is a term that’s often used to describe engagement with images of Black people laughing, dancing, and thriving. These images can work to counterbalance the negative effects that televised images of anti-Black violence can have on health and wellbeing. It’s about showing that Black people don’t only experience death; we also experience joy. I’m looking forward to continuing this research at my new institution.

Q. Decades from now, when you reflect back on your career, what do you hope to see? In other words, what is your greatest hope regarding the impact of your work?

A. I hope that my research makes people question things that are often taken for granted in ways that promotes health equity. I’d like my work to move the conversation and challenge the idea that everyone is able to be healthy if they “choose” to. I want people to engage with my research, even if they disagree. As long as it gets them thinking about alternatives to current systems and structures that promote health inequity, I will feel like I have accomplished something meaningful.