Opinion

OPINION | Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu

The sting of everyday racism

Mike Reddy for Stat

This feels all too familiar.

After watching the violence unfold in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, after watching white supremacists descend on the city where I went to medical school, and onto the University of Virginia campus where I became a doctor, this is what I said to myself.

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I’ve seen this anger before.

For four years, my task was to learn to treat people who were sick. Even the ones who wore their Confederate pride openly, even the ones who threatened to shoot me on home health visits. My task was to learn from experienced physicians how to help people get well. Even when they witnessed racist behavior directed toward me. Even when they glossed over that bigotry.

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The response to the violence in Charlottesville has had its fair share of denial — people saying, this is not the city I know, the protesters came from elsewhere, this is not the America I know.

Such statements are infuriating.

In Charlottesville, this was exactly the America I knew. This was the Virginia I knew. This was the medicine I knew.

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Bigotry happens here in Boston as well. A few weeks ago, an angry patient kept referring to me as “that woman.” Another patient refused to look at me, a black doctor, as she believed black people “are more prone to violence.”

This is the quiet racism of every day — the small transgressions that we gloss over in our daily lives. The outrage that only comes when men carrying tiki torches march openly. The America I know tolerates racism as long as it’s quiet, as long as it doesn’t cause a scene.

Until it kills an innocent protester.

But there’s always hope. There’s always promise.

On Monday morning, the CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier, stepped down from a presidential advisory panel over the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville.

In his statement, he said, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.”

This is a stand that affirms human value, that expresses an understanding that health care, medical care, and the pharmaceutical industry can be inclusive and aware. I’m happy to see this. I hope other health care executives associated with President Trump will follow suit.

As for me, during the first incident of racial animus, a nurse intervened, reminding the patient that I was her doctor, Dr. Okwerekwu, and deserved her respect. And during the second incident, my attending spoke up, telling the patient that her views were misinformed.

He asked me later how I was doing, how I was coping. A team social worker, an occupational therapist, and even a medical student I was working with offered their support.

This is the America I want. The medicine I aspire to.

In this medicine, I don’t have to shoulder the injustice of racism alone. My role as a doctor doesn’t negate my humanity. My coworkers and I form a team that supports one another.

This support, this teamwork, should have happened while I was in Charlottesville — acknowledging injustice, facing it head on, and empathizing with my experience as a black woman and a black doctor-in-training.

After a weekend of overt racism, of anger toward Black Lives Matter, and the fury over the removal of a Confederate monument, I hope Charlottesville and the University of Virginia quickly heal, then evolve — and recognize the work that lies ahead to create the America we all want, and the medicine I believe we all deserve.

Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu is a second-year resident in psychiatry and a columnist for STAT.
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