I sat in my normal seat, the one I sit in every day, not too close, for fear of being called on or viewed as a gunner, but not so far back that I can’t hear what the lecturer has to say. But this was not a normal day of class. I was taking a break from studying anatomy by coming here to listen to Tim Wise speak. As I waited for the event to start, I studied the faces around me, what can I say, my mind was still stuck on anatomy of the head and neck. I was struck by the number of races I didn’t recognize, I knew that it had been opened up to the community and had a feeling that much of the audience weren’t members of our college of medicine, or even the law school down the street. Students in professional schools tend to keep their heads in books and focused on computer screens, too focused on passing their next exam to learn things that they will actually use in everyday practice. But of course, the lecture was recorded, and I can’t help but wonder how many of my classmates listened to the lecture at 2 times speed later, like I do with biochemistry or anatomy. But I digress, and the lecture was about to start.
First our President, a distinguished looking black woman, got up and talked about the importance our school places on diversity, and its addition in our mission statement. I looked up and scanned the room, noticing neither of the two black guys in my class were present. But fine, I know it’s something she cares about, and there is probably stuff that goes on behind the scenes that I’m not aware of. Then our multicultural affairs director spoke and my mind was starting to drift. How many speakers do we need to introduce one guy? To my surprise, the next speaker was someone from my class. A tall, blonde, WASP-y looking white man took to the podium, looking nervous, but determined. In a past life he was a teacher and spoke with pose that obviously came from years of practice. He told of how Tim Wise had directly influenced his life, how hearing him speaking and reading his books had helped him not only understand more about racial politics in this country, but helped motivate him to want to take action to do anti-racism work. Truthfully, I was rather touched, as it’s rare to see a white man in my age group express those feelings and want to do something about it. But finally we had come to the main event, and Tim Wise began stood at the front, and started to address the crowd.
The first thing I noticed was his height. Standing at 5’8 he hardly had a commanding presence. Honestly he just looked like some guy, someone you would see walking down the street and not think twice, with greying hair and a tie that was tied too tightly. But then he started to speak. His voice was animated and powerful, full of confidence but also a willingness to engage in self-deprecation. A bit of a talking paradox, but I suppose that’s par for the course with a white anti-racism speaker, isn’t it? His topic had two main focuses, history and color-blindness. I got the concept of color-blindness, but I will come back to that. What I was thrown by was history. What in the world does history have to do with treating patients? We had just finished our course on medical history which I had loathed as it took away from other classes I felt were more important. Also the fact that I’m not exactly stoked to read about a bunch of dead white guys. But that wasn’t exactly the type of history Mr. Wise was referring to. No, he was talking about a cultural sense of history, specifically the type of history black folks have with medicine (and the law as well). In behavioral medicine we had learned that a difficulty often faced with patients who have chronic health conditions is that they have an extensive history with the healthcare system. They have seen many doctors, nurses, PAs, PTs, et cetera. And because of that they have probably had some bad experiences. And every time they see a new provider they bring those bad experiences with them, they might be more cynical or cautious, out of fear of being hurt again. We all agreed that this was a valid and understandable reaction. Well what does that have to do with black folks and healthcare? Well, the collective consciousness of black patients includes a lot of historical bad experiences. Tuskegee was not an isolated incidence of black people being treated like garbage by the medical industry. Ask the family of Henrietta Lacks or the 7,600 mostly black and brown women and girls who were sterilized in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974. So is it frustrating for a provider who does have their patient’s best interest in a mind to be mistrusted? Of course. But is it unreasonable, or irrational for the black community be distrustful? Absolutely not. It’s not like the idea that white doctors might not have the best interests of black folks in mind is this crazy notion that has never happened before. That’s not the world we live in.
But on to color-blindness. Mr. Wise brought up the idea of “wanting to treat all patients the same”. Now that’s a phrase I’ve heard over and over when discussing the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community. Specifically, when I bring up the need to teach medical students about the community at least one person will always chime in, usually in the most condescending way possible, that why should we spend any extra time on learning how to treat queer patients, because after all they are just people right? Shouldn’t we just treat them like everyone else? *Insert face-palm here* It’s always amazing me how anyone could be so ignorant. First of all, we don’t treat every patient the same. You don’t give the same advice to an obese patient that you do to an anorexic patient. That would be stupid. So why would you treat a gay patient like a straight patient? Why would you treat a black patient like a white patient? Why would you not take into account that person as a whole, and go from there? White providers shouldn’t just ignore the life experience of a patient of color because they are uncomfortable with race. We are supposed to provide holistic care, to consider the context surrounding the person we are treating instead of just considering them as a list of symptoms. Logically, wouldn’t that person’s race or sexual orientation be a valuable part of their context? We shouldn’t treat everyone like they are a 70 kg white male because not everyone is a 70kg white male! I mean that seems obvious, no? But instead it’s the revolutionary idea that many of our population has never even considered. But of course that ties in white privilege, and just assuming that your life experiences are the default or standard.
Throughout the speech I was enthralled and in agreement with almost all that he said. But it was the questions at the end that really caused me to think about my own life and my role in anti-racism. Someone specifically asked about the school to prison pipeline, using a statistic that shocked me. The statistic was that Iowa uses the number of 3rd graders who are below expected grade reading level in order to determine how many beds they need in new prisons. Now this stat didn’t surprise me because I didn’t know that, it surprised me because I did. As a member of a sorority whose philanthropy was literacy I had used that statistic every semester during recruitment. Along with other smiling (mostly white) faces I had this factoid in my back-pocket as a selling point for the importance of getting kids reading early. I had literally never considered that it could be evidence for anything else. I sat stunned as there was an audible gasp in the audience over that fact I had used gleefully over and over. I felt sick. Why had I not thought about this further? Of course it was showing how pervasive the school to prison pipeline is, but my white liberal brain never took that into account. Continuing on, Mr. Wise talked about racism in Iowa and my home state of Minnesota. He mentioned the extreme gap between the number of black students who have been expelled vs. white students, and that carried on to whites vs. blacks in trouble with the law. He even threw out a jab at my former college, which shall we say, is known both for high academic achievement and high drug usage. Again, things I had never considered. I realized how easy it is for me just to say that racism is a southern thing, that it has little impact on life here. He mentioned that in the south whites don’t care how close blacks get, as long as they don’t get too high, but in the north we don’t care how high blacks get, as long as they aren’t too close. And again, of course this is true. I thought of the public elementary school I went to and the two black kids in my class. In my private high school I could count the number of people of color on 2 hands. Shit, I don’t think I had ever talked to an Indian person until I had an Indian roommate my 1st year in college. The distance clouds us, makes us unaware, we never are confronted with our own privilege. Mr. Wise brought up an exercise he has had where he has white people list stereotypes about other races. After the talk I asked him if he ever has white people list stereotypes about themselves. He said yeah of course. But when I thought about it, I had a hard time coming up with ones. I realized that white people tend not to make self-deprecating jokes about their race. It rarely happens, and if you don’t have any exposure to races other than your own, you might not know any white people stereotypes. And I’m not trying to say that stereotypes are particularly helpful, but shit, we never have to look at ourselves in a critical manner if we don’t want to. It’s sad, and I think it contributes to a lot of fucked up ideas that white folks have about race.
At the very end a man in the back asked Mr. Wise about what he thinks we can do about racism. That it’s not enough just to talk or write about stuff, what are we supposed to do about all these horrible things. The response was basically encouraging self awareness. That we should look at ourselves and decide why we give a shit, and that just quoting Ghandi or any other liberal catchphrase isn’t good enough. Since then I’ve been trying to consider why I care. Why is this really important to me, beyond the bullshit that I’d like to hide behind. I suppose the best I’ve come up with is that a lot of my really important life experiences as a teen had to do with race. I was the white girl who hung out with the black kids in high school and was ostracized for it by many of my white peers. I saw that as a form of racism, and it taught me that racism isn’t just something that’s in a history textbook, and that isn’t not just something that hurts people of color, it’s something that hurts everyone. Perhaps that’s a silly reason, or just another form of white guilt. But I realize how small and insignificant my experience with racism is in the grand scheme of things, and if my experience was hurtful, the experiences of people of color who have to deal with this shit every damn day must be horrific. At the end of the day, I’m just not okay with that and I can’t just stand back and let that happen without saying something.