Confessions Of A (Recovering) Color Coward
Physician Outlook's founder and publisher takes a long, hard look at her own thoughts and views and personal experiences with racism.
What do George Floyd, "American Son" (a Netflix movie and Broadway play starring Kerry Washington), and my two biracial nephews have in common? More than you could ever imagine.
As a first generation American, the daughter of Hispanic immigrants who did not speak English until the age of 5, I thought I knew what racism felt like. Looking back over the years I have perceived discrimination from time to time. When I was younger it was because of my family: their broken English, the color of their skin, how loudly they spoke Spanish, or how they were dressed. As I got older, I imagined it was because I myself was speaking Spanish, because of my crazy hair, or maybe it was the deep summer tan or the size of my butt. As the song goes, “baby’s got back.”
I have always thought of it as a blessing (but maybe it has been a curse) that I have a “Teflon” personality and can let negative energy “slide off” of me, instead of letting it ruin my day or affect my persona. I have instead chosen to consciously take advantage of concessions offered to me on the basis of my race and heritage and make sweet lemonade out of the occasional lemons lobbed my way.
Instead of dwelling on my “different”-ness or seeking or thriving on racial ostracism, I chose to celebrate the benefits afforded to me because I WAS different. Yes, I have that “glass half full” personality. I always figured it was the same for my black friends and colleagues. They, TOO, could choose the same glass half full attitude.
When it comes to racism, I’ve often felt “in between” black and white. The reality is, I have no idea what it feels like to grow up black, to be black, or be judged based on the history of my ancestors. I have no idea how hard it is to be a black physician or a black patient. I have made the wrong assumptions. I have not been as good a friend to those of color as I could have been. I have not been a good listener, wanting to “fix” or explain, instead of being accepting. I have wanted to impart my own value set without a clear understanding of what it is like to be black. Worst of all, I had been a color coward, silently watching, rationalizing. My knees=squeaky clean.
The Road To Recovery
My journey towards “color bravery,” a term I first heard from Dr. Niran Al Agba, started serendipitously last year when I was invited to attend a short-running award-winning Broadway play in NYC by a friend who was producing the show. It was called “American Son.” It starred the very talented black actress Kerry Washington (who co-produced the show along with my friend) as the mother of Jamal, a teenage boy of mixed race who goes missing when he leaves his house to go out with two black friends. The play, set entirely in the waiting room of a police station in south Florida, was riveting. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I had just seen my nephews for Christmas a few weeks prior to attending the show and their transition to manhood had shocked me, as I hadn’t seen them in a while.
Jamal WAS my nephews. I left that play and immediately bought my sister and her family 4 seats before the show closed. They never speak about race. They have never had “the talk” with the boys about what it is like to be a black young man in America. This was an opportunity to talk to my sister about racism because we hadn’t had any discussion since she was a teenager and started dating her now husband who is black.
Having difficult/sensitive conversations in an office setting is something I am trained to do. Why hadn’t I initiated or facilitated these important conversations earlier with my sister, brother-in-law, and my nephews? I have doled out pediatric advice about everything else throughout the years. Why had I waited so long? Seemingly overnight they had turned into grown men and now they were in danger like Jamal from “American Son.” Worse yet, they were blind to the danger. They had no idea what kind of darkness and evil lurks out in the world for them. They have been brought up to think that life is fair. To believe that law enforcement is trained to be just.
Fast Forward To Spring
Given the global state of affairs, I thought things could not get any worse - a worldwide pandemic that is causing unprecedented loss of life, an impending sense of doom and panic, a nationwide quarantine, and a global economic collapse. But things did get worse. The day I saw a Minneapolis police officer snuff out the life of George Floyd was entirely a new low point in my life. In my mind’s eye I could not help but see the faces of my two handsome, biracial nephews underneath that crushing knee. I am forever traumatized by hearing this man whimpering for his mama, saying “I can’t breathe” before he took his last breath.
While I had been affected emotionally in the past over the senseless murders of black people at the hands of law enforcement, I subconsciously chose to be a color coward. I would see the names on the news or on my social media feed...Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor. Choosing to not implicitly trust the mainstream rhetoric that is passed off as news, I would do a quick internet search to get a little more personally researched background on the circumstances surrounding each of these deaths. Ultimately, however, I would go about my day, my business. l did not let these deaths affect me in any significant way. I shrugged them off as a sorry “c’est la vie” sign of the times.
“They” should have been more careful.
“They” had a criminal history or were taking drugs.
“They” had made poor choices in picking friends.
“They” were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That word “they” sticks out like a sore thumb for me. It is a descriptor that reeks of racism, that emphasizes the “not same-ness.” I feel ashamed at my lack of true empathy in the past.
It turns out that “they” could be my nephews, who in the past few years have transformed from little boys into young black men. “They” are what started giving me pause, waking me up, making me change and feel and worry in ways that I have chosen not to for most of my adult life.
Time For The Talk (Ok, Text, They Are Teenagers After All)
My nephews have been raised in an upper middle-class neighborhood outside of New York City. My sister has always been very strict with the boys who are both exemplary students and excellent athletes. They use their manners. My younger nephew is lighter skinned than the older one, and identified as “Dominican” and “not” black at one time. He has a temper, and a mouth, and as he gets older, he is the one that worries me. Teenagers can be mouthy. They can be fresh. They can back talk. They are human. They can make mistakes. But suddenly, my color cowardice slapped me in the face. My nephews CANNOT AFFORD to behave like ‘normal teenagers.’ Such behavior at the wrong time, in the wrong place, could cost them their lives.
I sent them as a family to “American Son” hoping it would spark some difficult conversations. They all loved going to see the play on Broadway, but much to my chagrin, not a word was spoken afterwards as a family about how to stay safe. They loved the ending, one that terrified me and robbed me of sleep for weeks afterwards, and still haunts me to this day.
So, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and the Amaud Arbery shooting, I decided to do something that makes ME uncomfortable. I needed to find out what they knew, what they thought about racism. What they perceived their own risk to be as young black men. I had to continue forward on my journey towards color bravery.
I initiated the “conversation” by asking what each of them knew about Ahmaud Arbery, as both boys are athletes. They go for runs, alone, through their neighborhood to stay in shape. (I have no doubt that my sister would follow them from afar in her car if there were ever a shooting in their neighborhood like the one that killed Arbery). It was reassuring to learn that both boys feel very loved and protected in their lives, and do not perceive racism from their peers, teachers, or their community in general. My younger nephew (who is almost 15) knows way more about world events than his brother gives him credit for, although his “news source” is Instagram, not Twitter.
The lessons that I personally learned from breaking the color barrier with my nephews:
We adults need to reach out regularly to our young to initiate these difficult conversations. I need to do this more and come out of my comfort zone.
The importance of a good well-rounded education cannot be overstated. It scared me to hear both boys tell me that their primary source of information are “apps” that were not intended nor designed to be primary unbiased “news” sources. These are sites where individuals come to express their opinions. On Twitter this information is expressed via 280-character sound bytes or “SMS”s (short message service). On Instagram the “news” is delivered via pictures and short videos. When I was young, we watched the news together after dinner, and we regularly heard our parents discuss what they read in the newspaper as a family. This sparked conversation between the adults which shaped the way we children saw the world. It was reassuring to hear that my older nephew was engaging his parents in discussions about what he was seeing on Twitter (riots, protests, and Trump). It worried me that my younger nephew did not seem to be engaged in these conversations. Instagram is primarily a video and photo-sharing app. Their choices of preferred social media match their personalities to a “T.” My older nephew loves to read, debate, and have deep intellectual conversations. His brother is very bright but prefers playing video games, relaxing, and learning passively.
Relying on social media feeds for information has the one big advantage that the news is coming from influencers that “speak” to the subscriber, and not from polarized biased media outlets. As a pediatrician, however, I worry that adolescents may not always choose wisely in who their role models are, and I am also concerned that nefarious forces could be purposefully manipulating algorithms to brainwash our youth in one direction or another. Balance is key, and family values must necessarily play a role to help our youth thrive and shine.
Land of the Free, Home of the #ColorBrave
I am sorry it has taken me so long to recognize my inner coward, and appreciate your patience when I stumble on the path towards bravery. For me, having these difficult conversations is a tiny step in the right direction. As we recently celebrated the 4th of July holiday, where American flags are proudly displayed in great numbers across our towns, decorating every flagpole, porch, and lawn I am filled with hope that we can become what those flags represent - the land of the free, and the home of the color-brave. With this hope, I can breathe - a little.