Stop gasping. Yes, I did say, “I’m tired of being Black.” I bet you Obama is tired of being Black, too! Do my white friends get tired of being white? Do my rich friends get tired of being rich? I’m sure they don’t recognize the privilege that comes with their skin tone. How many times each day does my friend Pat remember that she’s white? Being an African-American, I may not be thinking about the fact that I’m Black, but you’d better believe that when I am out in public it is some asshole’s goal of the day to remind me. There have been several times in my life that I’ve been brutally reminded of my skin color after having forgotten about it. The most recent was two years ago when I was in the hospital. A nurse was treating me terribly, seemingly without provocation. I kept asking myself crazy questions, wondering if my illness was playing with my memory: Did I throw up on her? Did the blood that shot out from the IV get on her clothes? It was only later, when I heard her outside of the room talking to another nurse about “those Black people,” that I understood. I had done nothing to merit demeaning treatment from the nurse in charge of my care—other than the apparently unforgivable offense of being born with dark skin. Hell, it made me so mad that I decided to get better just so I could write a letter to the hospital’s CEO about her behavior!
I really wish I knew how it felt to be free.
A friend and colleague of mine, a highly respected researcher who does work around disparities in healthcare, was denied a grant recently, supposedly because she had not presented a strong enough case for the prevalence of racism among physicians, nor supplied a quantifiable means to chart it and extinguish it. Can there actually be someone in America who believes that racism does not exist in healthcare? This person must have no television, no radio, no newspapers. Here are the hard questions: Was she turned down because she’s a Black physician? Since she is at the top of the research game, it’s not her credentials, for they are impeccable. Or, is it the subject matter? Can we truly not come to grips with the fact that hospitals and physicians constantly contradict the Hippocratic Oath—i.e., the hypocritical oath.
Even better: A foundation I spoke to a few weeks ago said they were no longer putting money into disparity conversations or programs because Obama’s election to president was sufficient evidence that the race divide in America was well on its way to healing. Believe it or not, these are the kinds of utterly ridiculous conversations I have day after day.
I’m invited to many disparities conferences and meetings, but often, I’m the only brown person there. If I disagree with a statistic or the speaker’s point of view on how best to solve disparities issues, I automatically become the spokesperson for Black people, but I am attacked when I point out a contradiction. I once spoke to a predominantly white audience at a church (now, saying “predominantly white” is funny because, of the few hundred in attendance, there were only 5 people of color, and two of them were not Americans). I asked the congregation why were they there that day. Were they there to find out how they could be part of effective change, or were they there just for intellectual masturbation? You would have thought I’d asked them to take off all their clothes and run wild. As the audience proceeded to direct remarks to me about people of color, not one of my colleagues intervened on my behalf—nor did the moderator. One old lady said, “I’m tired of hearing about you people.”
I wish I knew what it felt like to be free.
Now, let’s talk about going to meetings and conferences where there are one or two other people of color. I call this THE ONE AND ONLY CLUB: Black people who exacerbate the problem. I am sick of being in a room in which there’s only one other person of color and they are afraid to look at me because I’m Black. It’s as though they’re afraid we’ll be perceived as a token minority, instead of as individuals, if we happen to acknowledge one another’s presence. Hell, when I’m in a room and I look across the room and someone’s looking at me, I always nod and give them a smile. I don’t care if they’re Black, purple or Klingon; I always nod and give them a smile. Why is it that, when I’m in the room with my educated brothers and sisters and I look in their direction, they stare right at me then look away, as if I am invisible? What the hell is that about? In those situations, if there’s some seriously ignorant stuff being said, I always try to dispel the absurd myths. “No, I wasn’t raised in a slum,” or, “Yes, I had a father.” However, the other person of color will act as if what I just said was from another planet. In so doing, they protect and condone systems that work directly against the interests of persons and communities of color. Or, there are Blacks who will directly express the belief that we are inferior (yes, I just said that! This is no typo). An idiot recently told me that my website (www.urutherighttobe.org) is as impressive as that of any white organization. Here I was, talking to a Black man who was genuinely surprised that my site was on par with a white organization’s—what does that mean? That I cannot be as good as my white colleagues? That I’m not expected to deliver the same quality product?
Do I sound like I’m tired, angry and a bit pissed off? Hear me loud and clear: I AM!!
From going to Washington and my post-conversation, I think there is a disconnect between policymakers and their constituents, the public they profess to care about. Sometimes I think I’m just getting older or more naïve. It’s amazing to me that any person of color survives in a system that is so dysfunctional, that offers them no voice, that actively minimizes whatever impact they might have. It’s no wonder that many people of color who are involved in this disparity conversation just don’t really say anything. They’ve been there; they’re discouraged; they have no desire to participate because they don’t think it will make a difference. For me, though, if I didn’t think I could make a difference, I would feel complicit in that system. I would feel as though I were enabling the disparate treatment toward sick persons of color. I just can’t do that; I won’t do that. I tell people that we all must stand up and fight. If it wouldn’t be good enough for mine, then it’s not good enough for anybody else’s. That’s the standard for me. It’s really that simple.
When I think about the deplorable state of healthcare in this country I always return to the breast and cervical program for women who don’t have insurance at Yale Hospital. They only see women perhaps four times per month. In other words, if you’re having an emergency, you’d better fall on that schedule—which is usually booked three months in advance. To visit the clinic on those four days of the month is to witness a process of dehumanization. Why can’t these women’s appointments be scheduled throughout the week, during the same hours that are convenient to women with insurance or private pay? To the people that funded this program: what were you thinking? Do you think these women only need services four times a month? Would you leave a woman you cared about in that kind of care? No! If it’s not okay for your women, why is it okay for these women? Why do doctors take pride in the fact that they donated some of their time “at a reduced rate” to programs of this kind, when they would never take pride in subjecting their loved ones to this breed of healthcare? Why does it have to be personal before people can feel anything?
What is exciting about the film The Deadliest Disease in America and its accompanying workshops is that it gives voice to individuals who were never given the opportunity to speak before. Have you ever noticed that policymakers, do-gooders and other decision-makers never actually converse with the persons they’re supposed to be representing or helping? One of the young Black men featured in the film was so excited to participate in this project. He said no one had ever asked him for his opinion, or listened to what he thought before. That is why my film is what real community/public health is about.
I’m tired of identifying people by race—that white person, that Puerto Rican, that Mexican, that Black person. Most of all, I’m tired of being Black; I’m tired of speaking about racism in healthcare; I’m tired of a world where we automatically make assumptions based on people’s skin tones, accents. I would like to live in a world in which I was not “Black” or “female” or “handicapped,” just a human being, just a child of God.
I wish I knew how it felt to be free.
I do not look in the mirror and see a Black woman in a wheelchair. When I think about my attributes, when I look at myself in the mirror, I do so with appreciation for the wisdom of God that guides me, the love of God that inspires me, and the life of God that enlivens me.