I grew up in Massillon, Ohio--- an ethnically and culturally homogeneous small rural town with a foundering manufacturing base. I was raised by a single mother, visited my father in Arizona in the summers. We lived in relative poverty for years after the divorce. We barely scraped by, to be perfectly honest. (We ate a lot of tuna casserole on Wednesday nights). I was always loved and supported but something always felt amiss. I had grandparents and relatives who casually dropped the "N" word at family gatherings. I was told that mixed race children were bad because "they get rejected by both the blacks and whites" as if one needed a certain skin tone for admission to a tribe. My high school was 98% white. I never really had an actual conversation with a black person until medical school.
I was also blessed with a certain unearned, undeserved intelligence. I did well in school and was able to go off to college and then to medical school. Today I am surgeon in Cleveland and 1980's Massillon seems eons ago, and millions of miles away, even though I could drive to my childhood home in less than 90 minutes if I wanted.
But events like the violence and hatefulness demonstrated in #Charlottesville yesterday bring it all rushing back. The notion that White Supremacy is baked into the essence of America cannot be easily dismissed. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has more eloquently stated in his magazine pieces and books, America is built upon the idea of plunder. Plunder of land, of labor, of life by the "more deserving" Anglo-Saxon elite. In this reprehensible worldview only the White Christians of Western European origin are fit for power. For the racists and white nationalists, subjugation of Africans, of Native Americans, of Hispanics, of the non-Protestant religious is not only justifiable but even morally desired for the betterment of all humanity. As Robert E Lee (the man for whom the Alt Right protesters were ostensibly marching to defend yesterday) said: "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy."
Today I live in an ethnically diverse part of Ohio. The majority of my patients are African-American. My colleagues in medicine are Black and Jewish and Asian and Muslim and Hindu. My medical assistant is a strong African American woman who works her ass off and treats my patients with dignity and respect. For all this I am eternally grateful. My life has become far richer with the experience.
It started with medical school, intensified during surgical residency in Chicago and then blossomed here in Cleveland. Something happens to a mind and a body when you are able to escape the arbitrary constraints of provincial narrow-mindedness. There's a wide wide world out there. And the the further you venture out, the more you find that the extent of the world can be found in the heart of your own soul. You never knew the secret was wrapped up inside, that you needn't go far to find it. In sickness, in pain and suffering, we all cry out with similarly pitched wails of protestation. White or Black or Asian, we all suffer. We all are loved. We all err, we all rue lives lost, chances missed, paths neglected. We all have parents who mourn our failings or falls. We all wish we were better, more loving, more understanding. Life for all of humanity is a series of failures. If we are lucky, we rise from bed each morning with the yearning to maybe make things just a little bit better, incrementally. In medicine, the facade falls away and you see people without any of the obfuscatory bullshit. The authenticity available to a physician is the greatest of all privileges. It may have saved my soul, in particular. Too easy it is, in this fallen, inadequate, craven world to succumb to an overwhelming cynicism and despair.
And so today I say, unequivocally, that I denounce in no uncertain terms the UniteTheRight protests in Charlottesville yesterday. It wasn't "both sides". It was one side promulgating the absurdist notion that one's skin color is a marker of human superiority. This "side" has no place in 21st century America. Beneath the relative melanocyte content of your skin, beyond the arbitrary nature of one's parents' provenance, there resides a commonality shared by all the living. We all have had our hearts broken, we all have faced the sudden pre-dawn stifling fear of our own imminent mortality. Life is a shared experience lived through a seemingly singular consciousness. After all these years that's the only thing I have really ever known to be true. All else is up for interpretation......