And There He Was, Staring at Me…

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King

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As I was leaving Westminster Abbey a few weeks ago, I turned back to get a few shots of the stonework over the door.

That was when I saw him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

On an ancient cathedral in England.

At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me. I was not wearing my “old lady” glasses after all. But no. I checked my camera, enlarging the script, and my friend confirmed it. His name was written right there.

So, I wondered. Is this like the “astronaut” on the cathedral in Salamanca, Spain? A product of 20th century restoration work? And if so, what had been there before?

As it turns out, there was nothing in those niches for hundreds of years. In 1998, they were filled with statues of 20th Century martyrs. You can read the whole article from the New York Times, “Westminster Elevates Ten Foreigners” here.

And that was a nice surprise! A little bit of home on the other side of the Atlantic.

Since I took over 1800 photos on this trip, I did not really give it any thought until last week when an unpleasant thing occurred at the clinic:

I saw a patient four years ago, twice. I saw their children, too, several times. Shortly after that, this patient and the kids began seeing my partner and continued to see her over a dozen times over the ensuing years. At the time, my feelings were a bit hurt. I felt we had had a great working relationship, but even on days that my schedule was not full, they were seeing the other doctor. I eventually I stopped thinking about it.

Over the past year this patient’s behavior at the clinic has become more and more erratic, insulting the staff, having screaming yelling fits over odd things, etc. We don’t know what is going on in that person’s life, but the discussion was becoming whether or not we should dismiss them.

Last week, as they were seeing my partner, they began accusing the office staff of shuffling them to another doctor without consent, implying that they did not ever want to see my partner in the first place, which hurt her feelings quite a bit. After calling a staff member stupid and yelling at another, my office manager took the patient into her office and told them that they really could not behave like that at our clinic. During that conversation the patient told my office manager that I was a racist. Why? Because I had told her not to eat fried chicken once.

Let me tell you… I didn’t.

I will admit that it hurts when patients say they don’t like me for whatever reason. Even if they are irrational and upset and it is not really about me. I work hard to put them at ease, to meet them where they are at, and to treat them with respect. When I fail, it bothers me.

I don’t think of myself as racist. I do talk about fried foods in the context of weight management and cholesterol but I don’t ever refer to fried chicken specifically, even though I am from the South. But even if something is not making sense, is it a symptom of something else? Am I treating my African American patients differently than other races? I don’t know.

It is possible.

And not because I dislike them. If anything, I like my African American patients more (they are so much more fun) but I will never know what it is like to be one of them. I always struggle myself because I don’t understand THEIR struggles on their level and I have terrific fear that I will say something or do something that will offend someone. So I am careful. Is it possible that I am too careful?

I am the only Caucasian in my office. I serve a predominantly African American population. Most of my patients keep coming back and they send their friends and relatives (ones that they seem to like). So I need to let it go, I guess.

But there is more to it. I am not even sure I should put words to it I am so ashamed.

My great grandfather was a leader in the local KKK. I have seen the paperwork and photos. My grandmother used to to defend it, saying it was not about race, that they did really good things like tracking down errant and wayward husbands and made them come home. Not sure I would want mine back.

A few weeks ago my mother made a statement, something that she has brought up for years, that slaves said their lives were better under slavery than they were after. Don’t you think that data might have been skewed just a teensy bit? So when people say that racism is no longer an issue, they are terribly misinformed. When I point out to my mother what a ridiculous statement that is, she does not see herself as a racist. She loves all people.

Racism can be insidious. Am I guilty of this myself?

I am so ashamed of these things in my family. I worry sometimes that people will find out where I came from, that I will be judged for their past.

That is not me!

And yet I also feel like I should make reparations, atone for their sins. How can I make up for all of that history?

So there it is.

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17 thoughts on “And There He Was, Staring at Me…

  1. Rent the movie “Crash”. It gives a wonderful statement about how we all are a little racist, all of us. On the note of reparations, I’m stuck. If racism is a human weakness, how far do we go with reparations ? Do we take it to the point of diminishing accountability on an individual level?

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    • I don’t even know the answer myself. Can’t the sins of the past really be paid for in the present? And if they were, would it diminish the horrors of the past and make us less responsible for our own actions in the present?

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      • The phrase “collective consciousness” comes to mind when reading your response. No, you’re absolutely right, the atrocities of the past should never be forgotten.

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      • I walked away from the computer and realized that I tried too hard to stay high brow in contemplating your post and want to note the first thing that came to mind.

        Of course you are going to advise not eating fried food to anyone more than 15% overweight, who’s cholesterol, HDL, and LDL are off, and might have other statistically proven indicators of pending heart disease.

        I am being presumptive here. Your post had much more depth than a rant about someone mislabeling you when you were only doing your job as a healthcare advocate.

        I’m just sayin’, ya know…

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      • 🙂

        Truthfully, I didn’t say anything about fried food to this person. There was no reason to. Excellent cholesterol. Good BMI. No risk factors. There was not even the opportunity for a misunderstanding because it would not have even come up!

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      • hmmm, interesting, someone in good health …I can’t call them “professional” patients if they don’t have comorbidities that they want to make the focus of their identity.

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  2. It is a difficult issue. And there are bits of racism in all sides.

    I think what it comes down to, though, is that you have chosen to help the African-American community. You could probably easily work elsewhere, leaving that community unserved, or possibly less well served.

    We all slip up from time to time, out of ignorance, or forgetting the sensitivity for a second. It is going to happen. Both sides need to admit that that will happen and get beyond it.

    Another thing is that it is important for a doctor to be honest. If your patients are overweight, with high cholesterol and heart problems, they need to know that fried chicken shouldn’t be in their diet. Just like cigarettes shouldn’t be. They can be sensitive about it and keep doing it, or they can improve their health by making better choices. It is your job to tell them that.

    Perhaps you need a plaque on the wall reaing: “I’m going to tell you things you don’t want to hear. Sorry.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. People would be very narrow minded if they hold you accountable for your ancestor’s deeds. Everyone is racist and prejudiced against something to some degree, it’s in our upbringing and part of human nature. The important thing is to recognize it within yourself and have the insight to look at it critically – which you have done in this case. This makes you different to all the other active blind malicious racists out there. No you are not being racist and we can’t control how patients interpret what we say. I know it is difficult not to take it personally even though you know all this. It’s human nature to want to be liked by people but unfortunately sometimes, for patient’s own good, we are not in a position to do so. You know what? I would hate to be a policeman, cos day in day out, I would be telling people off, giving them fines, criticizing behaviors and being hated for it!!!!

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  4. I don’t think you should feel guilty for what your ancestors did and in a way by choosing to serve the demographic you do, you are atoning for any sins of the past. We are all unconsciously or otherwise racist, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t occasionally slip up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had someone comment a while back that being truly color blind really is not that good of a thing because it prevents you from seeing what they may have suffered in the past that makes them who they are. So true. We cannot erase that.

      Liked by 1 person

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