No matter how many times you've been disrespected or treated “less than” because of your skin color, it hurts. The day a patient's husband told me that he wasn’t seeing "my kind" was no exception. It was obvious that he was speaking for the patient as well as himself. It cut a little deeper given the raw wound I was already carrying given the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to name a few. It does not escape me that George Floyd could have very well been my husband and that Breonna Taylor could have been me. I bandage this wound each day before work. It is deep and never gets the chance to fully heal. I just keep changing the dressing.
When he said this to me, I felt so many emotions and sentiments at once. I felt anger, sadness, resentfulness, humiliation, frustration, bitterness, disappointment and numbness. Yet, I couldn't fully "feel" any of them because I don't have that liberty. My next patient was waiting, and the one after that, and the one after that. No matter what happens, as a black professional woman, I am forced to deal with an added layer of difficulty and responsibility. I must continue to give my best at all times no matter what is happening with me internally. I wear my professionalism as a badge and my mask like freshly applied make up in the morning. Best face and foot forward is how I approach each day.
To be honest, it has been a while since I've dealt with such “in your face” racism in the workplace. It's taxing, draining and confounding. Working in an area such as oncology (cancer), the work is already challenging yet oftentimes rewarding. However, it is at the same time demanding and sometimes sad. It would seem that within this specialty that there is no room for racism. I mean, to think that people, who are in many cases, literally fighting for their life could also hate you for living yours. Befuddling!
Then there are those who want to have complex discussions during an office visit that does not pertain to their illness. "What's wrong with me saying All Lives Matter?" a patient recently said to me. "Oh Lord, I can't have this discussion with you" is what I was screaming to myself. The patient asked again as I hesitated to respond initially. I am fairly certain that I am one of the few black people this person can talk to about this. I do my best to be diplomatic, after all this is a hematology and oncology practice and I am the nurse practitioner. I say, " it's all about the context in which the phrase is being used. Saying Black Lives Matter doesn't mean that all lives don't." The patient looks confused and I am immediately tired and it's only the beginning of my clinic day. I kindly say we need to get to the treatment room for treatment. In my mind, I'm thinking "I don't have time for this Lord. Help me." Best wishes are extended to my family and I do the same. Before parting though, the patient says, "I would like to discuss more when you have time." I smile and get ready for my next patient.
I once had a child come in with a patient who surprisingly announced, "Look, she's brown!" Talk about awkward. The encounter overall went well. However, it solidifies that even if I wanted too, (and I don't), I can't forget my race or the color of my skin. Then, there have been the silent encounters in which I can tell that the patient has an issue with me being black. He or she is at least "nice" enough not to acknowledge it openly. They just give off vibes that scream, "I really don't like people like you".
While my white counterparts move freely through this world including their workplaces without a second thought, I think about everything. "How would it look if I did this?" "What would they think if I did that?" "How would my words be interpreted if I really told you how I feel?" I've always known how many in the world would view me. My parents made sure I could navigate in certain spaces and climates. They prepared me for the challenges of being black in America. Sometimes, it’s more difficult than I ever thought it would be. I love my blackness though, from my melanin-rich skin to the incomparable rich heritage. I am resilient. I am an overcomer. I am persistent. I am determined.
I suppress my emotions and extend my devotion to those I serve. It's my calling to help people even if there are some people who don't truly want my help. I compartmentalize how I'm feeling in my heart and in my head and do what I must do for the patients I serve. I admit that it is getting harder and that sometimes I want to give racists, (covert and overt) a piece of my mind.
I have been caring for others in some sort of nursing capacity for well over a decade now and I have seen my share of racist antics. The demeaning smile. The condescending look. The one-word responses that really say, "I am only talking to you because I have to." The refusal to look me in my eyes. The insistence on talking to the white person who is with me despite me being the one leading the conversation. I could go on and on. I also know that my experience pales in comparison to many of my people who came before me. Unfortunately, to some, it does not matter that you are equipped and qualified to help them. They only see your skin color, and that is their loss.
To cope I rely heavily on my faith, my family and my friends. Good support systems are critical. I limit my social media. I rarely watch the news. I exercise (walk mostly), listen to music and read/listen to books that allow momentary escape from the foolishness of the world and to uplift my spirit. I know that I was put on this earth for a purpose and that
purpose will be fulfilled according to God's plan for me no matter what.
Have you had similar experiences? How do you handle difficult encounters? How do you handle racism? Do you struggle with racism?