“You should have hit her. She’s black.”
It is 1989, and I am a sixth grader struggling to adjust to life at Pollard Middle School. We are in music class. Instead of practicing their piano parts, two boys are sexually assaulting one of our classmates, laughing as they repeatedly grab her breasts and pinch her buttocks despite her best efforts to swat their hands away.
When the brown-skinned girl sees me looking at her, she recoils and asks me if I am going to touch her, too. No, I would never, that is not at all who I am. But she does not know that. The fear on her face suggests that despite her young age, she has already learned to see every boy as a potential assailant. I do nothing. Neither does the music teacher.
Two grades later, I am walking through the science department hallway after school has let out for the day. The corridor is mostly empty, just me, a younger girl, and the two aforementioned boys. One of the latter flinch tests the girl, acting like he is going to punch her before stopping his fist just before her face. She remains silent and does not react. As they walk away, one boy says to the other, “You should have hit her. She’s black.” Afraid they might come after me, I say nothing. I do nothing. I tell no one.
It is November 2015, I am reluctantly attending my high school reunion, and I spot him, the boy – now a graying man on the early fringes of middle age – who spoke those words in the science department hallway. As soon as I see him, I think of these two incidents and wonder how many women and minorities he has harassed, bullied, intimidated, and assaulted over the last few decades in part because I did nothing to stop him.
It is early spring in 1995, and my time at Needham High School is nearing an end. The best player on our tennis team is a black student who buses between his inner city home and our suburban school as part of the METCO program.
The time he loses every morning and afternoon sitting on a bus is time that I and many of my suburban-dwelling peers can use to study, do homework, seek tutoring or extra help from teachers, participate in extracurricular activities, or even just relax or sleep, all of which help directly or indirectly with our academics and college applications. We have a leg up on him based on proximity alone.
Not only is my teammate a great player, but he is also a super nice young man who goes out of his way to help us with our own games, including teaching me how to hit a kick serve. Meanwhile, I am stuck in tennis purgatory, sandwiched between a varsity roster filled with players better than me and our coach’s policy against allowing seniors on junior varsity. Coach explains to me that after three seasons together, he feels too bad to cut me, but that I should cut myself because I am not going to play. I refuse to do so and remain on the team solely as a practice hitting partner.
My personal and familial responsibilities enable me to spend every afternoon out on the courts, but my teammate has other obligations. He misses some practices, and coach tells him that if it happens again, he is gone. Then he misses another day because he has to give his brother a ride. Coach kicks him off the team, citing a lack of commitment. He cannot be in two places at once. What is he supposed to do? Yet none of his now ex-teammates come to his defense, at least, not to my knowledge.
As a result of his expulsion from the team, I get promoted to the varsity lineup and have an unexpectedly great season – thanks in part to my new kick serve – that springboards me to playing for my college.
It is my senior year at Tufts University, and not only do I get to tell potential employers that I am a collegiate athlete, thus implying that I possess a disciplined work ethic and an ability to function as part of a team, but I can add that I have been named a co-captain, suggesting that I have leadership qualities and the respect of my peers. Can my ex-teammate from high school list either of these accolades on his resume?
The “Bloody Shirt” Incident
It is 1996, I am a college freshman, and I agree to help a friend paint the set for her drama production. Afraid of getting paint on my nice sneakers, I wear my running shoes. It is late at night by the time I leave the scene shop, and since I have my running shoes on anyway, I decide to save some time and jog back to my dorm.
A policeman working a construction detail yells at me to stop. He sees red on my shirt and thinks I was involved in the fight he heard about over his radio. It is just paint, I tell him. Without getting close enough to me to verify my claim, he takes me at my word, and I continue running into the night. Now I have a somewhat amusing story to tell friends about the time a policeman briefly mistook me for a violent perpetrator. I am white.
It is June 1999, and I am a recent college graduate. My girlfriend and I land in Las Vegas with plans to rent a car and drive to Phoenix and then San Diego for a short vacation before I enter the working world next month. The rental agency gives us the choice between two vehicles: a car to which they cannot find the key or a sketchy Daewoo without a license plate.
Somewhere in the Arizona desert, we get pulled over for speeding and driving a car without a license plate. Both policemen are friendly, and as one of them does whatever it is that cops do in their cruisers during traffic stops, the other remains by our Daewoo and jokes that maybe the last D on the car had fallen off, as he has never heard of the make before, but he knows of an electronics company by the name of Daewood.
The only emotions I am experiencing are shame and embarrassment for having been pulled over. Fear for our safety or even a theoretical notion that a routine traffic stop could turn violent never cross my mind. Despite being egregiously guilty of both offenses, we are sent on our way in our plateless car with neither a ticket nor a written warning. My girlfriend is also white.
It is 2004, and I go back to school for nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Driven by a fear of failure, I do everything I can to be academically perfect. In general chemistry, I answer literally every practice question in the textbook, even ones not assigned as homework. In organic chemistry, I attend the TA’s office hours, the professor’s office hours, and the on-campus tutoring department’s study groups every single week. My anxiety drives me to attend chemistry classes that I am not even enrolled in, just so I can hear the material presented over and over again.
My work ethic is as solid as osmium, but so are those of many of my classmates. Unlike some of them, I have finances working in my favor. Whereas some classmates have to load up on courses in order to finish the program as quickly as possible rather than rack up tuition costs for additional semesters, I go at a leisurely pace and never take more than four courses in a given semester. Instead of toiling endlessly at a job just to get by, my part-time gigs as a personal trainer and a dietitian’s assistant rarely sum to more than 15 hours in a given week. While our efforts are more or less equal, theirs are spread thinly over several demands whereas mine are more focused. I can afford – both literally and figuratively – to do this because I have personal savings and financial support from my parents.
Upon graduation, I have a 4.0 GPA, a handful of merit scholarships – including one for my achievements in organic chemistry – and an offer to work for free at one of the most prestigious dietetic internships in the country. Some of my classmates are not matched to an internship and are forced to pivot their career paths away from nutrition.
Because of my financial situation, I can accept my placement in the unpaid internship, the name recognition of which helps me to land my first job as a newbie registered dietitian.
The Iceberg’s Tip
It is June 2006, and I am in the early stages of a Seattle-to-Boston charity bicycle ride with a small group of other cyclists from around the country.
Riding into Clark Fork, a small and isolated town in the Idaho panhandle, I am shocked to see Confederate flags and pro-KKK signs openly displayed in front of a good portion of the homes.
That evening, the only black rider on our trip and I head to the local laundromat. As we walk, I tell him how surprised and horrified I am to see that such blatant racism still exists in our country, as I thought that we as a nation were past all that.
He explains to me that because I am white, I have the privilege of moving about the world largely ignorant of racism until it is glaring in my face like it is here in Clark Fork.
He is right, I realize. More than any other lesson that I learn about myself or America during our 4,024 miles across the continent, his is the one that sticks with me.
It is the winter of 2007-2008, and my internship rotation has me working on a roving healthcare van that travels to parts of Boston that I have previously steered clear of because I associate them with violence. We park in the heart of Mattapan to conduct various screenings, such as blood sugar and blood pressure checks, distribute free condoms, and answer as best we can whatever health-related questions and concerns are voiced by our visitors, virtually all of whom are black.
On one of our lunch breaks, my preceptor takes me to Ali’s Roti Restaurant because she wants me to experience a cuisine I do not encounter in the suburbs. We browse a neighborhood grocery store so she can show me the food supply available to the neighborhood’s residents. She points out organ meats and animal parts that I never would have thought of consuming before, but they are commonplace in other cultures. Note how prevalent and cheap the sugary drinks are in comparison to other beverages, she tells me. People can only buy what they have available to them and what they can afford, she explains.
We visit a food pantry, and I talk with people eagerly lined up to receive loaves of bread so old that there is no way I would eat them myself unless I was, well, starving. While I know of the existence of food pantries and understand them in an academic sense, this is my first time really experiencing one and interacting with people who rely on them to feed themselves and their families. I go home and make myself dinner in my fully stocked kitchen.
It is the early summer of 2008, and I have just completed my dietetic internship. A seasoned dietitian asks me to help her at a community healthcare event. People will be coming to us for information and screenings, very similar to those that I performed while on the roving healthcare van.
“If you can’t read someone’s blood pressure,” she says, “just tell them it is 120/80.”
The ethical choice and the one that prioritizes patient care is obviously to disregard her directive, but I feel intimidated by her, and I want to stay on her good side in hopes that she might help me with my job search. Fortunately, I am pretty skilled at taking blood pressure, so I never have to cross this bridge.
For our visitors, the vast majority of whom are black, this community event is essentially their annual physical. I imagine someone coming in for a blood pressure check, giving them a fabricated 120/80 result, and sending them on their way thinking they have normal blood pressure when really they have hypertension that subsequently goes untreated and leads to a stroke.
It is June 2020. I read that blacks are 50% more likely to have a stroke in comparison to whites and I wonder: Is the biology of skin pigment really the causal factor here, or is it everything else that comes bundled with being a minority in a country fraught with social disparities and systemic racism?