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Friday, May 1, 2009

Off Broadway: A Fight for Dignity


Racism has been a distant thought throughout most of my life.
Not just because of my privilege but because I have been surrounded by African Americans for most of my life. My first childhood friends were black. As I went though middle school I would travel with a diverse basketball team. I have cousins who are minorities. I went into high school spending 4-5 in our gym sweating, working, and hoping with a diverse mix of teammates. It was not that I didn't notice a difference in color or culture...it was that I had spent so much of my life around it that I normalized most perceived racism.
In my current job I am blasted with the reality of racism. The receptionist at the doctor's office where I have worked is a fantastic young Dominican woman. She works nine to five every day, leaves and goes to class, then returns home to help take care of her younger siblings. She is passionate, motivated, kind hearted...and loves Chipotle. We eat it together nearly every day.

I digress. Those lime salted chips are distracting.

As the receptionist she takes a lot of heat. People project onto her their anger about missed appointments, long wait times, and outstanding balances. They scream, cuss, and hang up. They dismiss and ignore. And then I (the blond haired, blue-eyed, white, 6 foot male) get involved. Their tone changes immediately. The balance they owed, that one moment before was causing panic attacks and door slamming, is irrelevant and they bust out their check book and sign with a smile. Patients will call and ask to speak to me rather than the receptionist. They will look right past her hoping to get my attention so that I may answer their requests.

These stories are not grandiose but simple. Subtle but heart breaking.

One day as we sat with each other (inhaling crack-salted Chipotle chips one can assume) I asked her if she noticed. She said she did. "But it's my whole life, ya know? It's nothing new." She continued to cry and through her tears described the difficulties of being a Dominican enculturated as an African American. She described how hard she works and thus how much harder it is for her to accept the way that people dismiss her as uneducated or "ghetto".

She broke my heart that day. Showed me the deep wounds caused by these ev-e-ry-day occurrences. Since then I have worked to defend her. To stand up for her in patient conflicts. To ignore patients cowardly requests to speak with me rather than her. Small but important changes to my behavior.

I hope she has noticed.

Through my work I have been more deeply exposed to a reality that I (please read "we") must fight against. Thank you New York (and Elly) for teaching me not only to identify prejudice, but forcing me to fight for other's dignity.

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