When I was in medical school, a senior doctor in a major urban county clinic who was my instructor referred to his patients as “animals.” He was speaking to a drug device representative who had come to visit him at his clinic.
The representative mentioned that her company had a new device coming out, but “so far the device has only been tested on animals.”
The senior doctor, an older white man, chuckled. “That’s fine,” he said. “Our patients are animals.”
We had just finished a busy morning seeing patients who were mostly young black women like me.
The senior doctor, who ran the family planning clinic, had an amazing track record of service to women. He had been providing gynecological care to poor women for decades, regardless of their ability to pay. His patients seemed to trust him, and his colleagues respected him as an esteemed member of the community.
By all accounts, he was a good person, doing good work.
He was also racist.
Most people are good, and most people are racist. As a black woman, I am familiar with holding on to these two truths at once.
I am not shocked when a well-meaning colleague tells me that I’m articulate, with the unspoken subtext, “for a black person.” A friend says he thinks news stations spend too much time covering stories about blacks being shot by cops.
I wasn’t surprised recently when photos were published of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing black and brown face at least three times in the past.
Like many people, I respected and like Trudeau for his down-to-earth demeanor and progressive agenda. I was let down when I learned of his past behavior, but I wasn’t surprised.
I assume that the scourge of racism has become embedded deeply in the psyche of every one of us. Some wear it proudly at KKK rallies. Others try to deny that it exists. Still others are conscious enough to admit that it’s there, and so do everything they can to eradicate it.
A recent Pew Research study revealed that 65% of Americans, including majorities across racial and ethnic groups, say it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president.
The same study indicated that about three-quarters of blacks and Asians (76% of each), and 58% of Hispanics have experienced discrimination because of their race or identity. In contrast, about two-thirds of whites (67%) say they’ve never experienced this. This points to a major difference in lived experience.
According to a recent NBC poll, 64% of Americans believe racism remains a major problem in our society. Forty-five percent of Americans believe race relations in the United States are getting worse.
The danger of racism is real, and it is more than historic photos and cruel remarks. Memphis mayoral candidate Tami Sawyer recently was the subject of a racist caricature and has received death threats. The recent case of white University of Arizona students beating a black student is only another example. We have centuries of racist assaults in American history.
To be sure, there is danger in arguing that being good and being racist aren’t mutually exclusive. Some may say that means racists are good people, but this would be an incorrect assumption. The premise is that being good does not absolve you of responsibility when you think and act in racist ways.
Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden recently said that racism is “a white man’s problem.” It is everyone’s problem.
Some people believe that minorities themselves cannot be racist. Yet black people are fed the same negative stories about themselves as the rest of the world is fed about us. Our brand of racism manifests differently, but it’s still there.
It doesn’t serve anyone to assert that being good and being racist are mutually exclusive. That leads to the trap of saying “I am well-meaning, therefore I am not racist.”
While schools and workplaces have a responsibility to offer education on biases, it ultimately is up to every individual to acknowledge and address their unconscious and overt biases. Many books are written on the topic. The information is there for those who venture to know more.
Good works do not erase racism and they do not offer absolution. Not for my senior doctor, Justin Trudeau nor anyone.
Brandi Jackson, MD, is a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center. She is the co-founder of Medlikeme.com, an initiative to increase diversity in medicine, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.
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