Originally written April 8, 2020
One month into the U.S COVID-19 pandemic
I’m the type of Black person white people feel at ease around.
I am Ivy-league educated. I went to one of the top medical schools in the country. I am one of only 2% of black female physicians in the US.
But even more than that — my speech is smooth and deliberate. I keep my volume low and even, even when I am overcome with emotion. I spend hours straightening my hair with heat and chemicals. I make sure my clothes, including my long white coat, are pristine before I go to work for the day.
None of this is by accident. Quite the opposite in fact.
The version of myself I embody when I am in predominantly white spaces — which is where I spend the vast majority of my professional life — has been perfected over a lifetime.
For the vast majority of my life, a large portion of my mental, emotional and physical energy has gone into ensuring that I am not perceived as a threat to the white people in my life.
As you might imagine, this takes a large toll.
My life, for the last odd 25 years, has largely been about performing for the white gaze. When it’s all said and done, I have little energy reserves to devote to that which refuels and replenishes me.
And yet, I perform these acts as a means of survival.
I perform so that when I determine it is the right time to speak up about issues that are important to me and the Black community, I have credibility in white people’s eyes.
I perform so that the white people around me are lulled into security. I perform so that maybe, just maybe, the next time I speak unpleasant truths to them about racism or misogynoir they don’t write me off as an angry, militant black person. I perform on the off chance that maybe, this time, I will gain an audience with someone who can equalize the scales.
If I’m honest with myself, though, I perform for selfish reasons too. I do it to demonstrate to white people that I have worth and value — something that, through the White Supremacist structure of our country, I have relentlessly been conditioned to believe that I do not possess intrinsically.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a stark reminder of how precarious the balance of my two worlds has always been, and continues to be.
I work as a Family Medicine physician for a Federally-qualified Health Center on the South Side of Chicago where I care for patients of all ages regardless of their ability to pay. My patients are the sickest of the sick.
Of course, this work is not without its challenges. It is, however, what sustains me. In my South Side clinic, where most of my patients are Black like me, my armor can come off. I rarely wear my white coat. I don’t need to there.
One-on-one with my patients, my speech is relaxed. I know that if I am not “on”, they will still respect me and value my opinion. When a patient tells a funny story, I laugh freely. I don’t worry that I’m laughing too loudly. In Black spaces, I do not have to prove that I have worth.
Meanwhile, the physician community to which I belong is currently in the fight for their life for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). We physicians and other health care workers have been all but abandoned by some of our biggest and most trusted institutions in this fight.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has historically been considered by us physicians as one of the most sacred and reputable institutions, recently advised we wear bandanas as necessary for protection. They have since revised this position, but I no can no longer trust or deeply respect an institution who displays politically-animated disregard for my life.
Having our safety disregarded so blatantly has shaken our profession. We are terrified. We feel powerfulness.
It is clear to me though that for many of my physician colleagues, who are primarily white, this is the first time in their lives they have reached this level of desperation to be humanized, valued and protected. While these feelings are acutely worse for me, these are feelings I have lived with for most of my life as a Black woman.
In fact, all of this is eerily familiar.
What has changed me, though, is seeing how my white physician colleagues are responding to the threat to their lives. Virtually overnight, over 100,000 physicians helped compose the CPPPA for submission to Congress, legislation aimed at protecting the interests of physicians on the frontline of the COVID pandemic. At the same time, everyday Americans are working day and night to sew cloth masks for us to wear. The outpouring of care, love and support is overwhelming. The call to action, obvious. All hands are on deck and ready to fight for justice for healthcare workers.
And yet, while this is going on, Black people are dying disproportionately with little mainstream fanfare or outrage.
As a Black person — who also happens to be a physician — I am again reminded of the two worlds I live in. I am reminded how I am somehow both seen and invisible. I am uncomfortably aware how my worth to society is built on degrees, and speech and a thin white coat.
My lack of PPE is only part of the reason I don’t sleep these days. Watching the destruction of Black lives from inside the ivory tower of medicine cause me a unique brand of trauma.
I’ve come to realize that my mental turmoil these days is from survivor’s guilt. The depression of knowing I am overall powerless to make white people care about Black people in the same visceral way they care and are invested in their own race’s survival. Not because they are evil. In fact, I sincerely believe most white people are good. I think that most white people simply have no conception of how racism operates and how they maintain it simply by moving through life without examining themselves critically.
Recently, I spoke to a Black patient who was having a very difficult time coping with the tremendous stress of the pandemic. She lives in a home with 4 other people, including her elderly mother. She is the sole income earner. She has a number of medical conditions that put her at a uniquely high risk for complications should she contract COVD-19. She is an essential worker working in transportation. She works for a rigid employer who only offers unpaid leave. She takes public transportation to her job because she cannot afford a car.
Social distancing for her is a privilege that is out of her reach. Her “choice” to work from home is an illusion. Sadly, I know that when it is all said and done, when she contracts the virus, she will be blamed for an undoing that is not of her making.
She was, understandably, distraught during our visit. The walls were closing in around her, in real time, and there was nothing I could do to help.
So I simply sat with her in her fears. I listened.
After all my degrees and medical training, for a lot of my patients, the care I give them often comes down to this. I have little else to offer when the world they live in is a bigger threat than any disease.
But this time, I shared something too. I admitted to her that I am just as scared and mistrustful as she is. Because I have lived on both sides of our system, I know for sure now that her fears as a Black person are not just baseless paranoia.
Modern medicine, if unchallenged, will let Black people die. In fact, it is perfectly designed to do so.
And so, I fight.
I fight for white people to see me as human so that they can see the humanity of other Black people.
I fight because I do not know an existence that is not tied up in advocating for my own survival and that of my people.
I fight so the weight of the systemic injustices of our country don’t break me.
I fight so I can get out of bed and face another day.
I fight because I don’t know what else to do.
So I will make sure every white person I meet knows I went to Cornell University and a top medical school — even though I know that pedigree has no actual bearing on intelligence or worth. As I scream and rage on the inside, I will keep my speech measured and my voice low. I will straighten my hair with heat and chemicals that burn my flesh to keep it pleasing to the white gaze. I will make sure my white coat is pristine before I go to work for the day.
I will still perform despite the personal cost, for no other reason than I know of no other way for white people to see me.
And they have to start seeing us. If not, they will continue to destroy us; blissfully unaware of the depth of destruction that their unexamined racism causes. Their allyship will continue to be performative instead of substantive. Their diversity and inclusion efforts will continue to be ill-conceived and poorly executed.
And they will never roll up their sleeves and do the soul work of unlearning the racism that unavoidably infects us all.