Racism's biggest blow is impersonality
Published: Tuesday, October 14th, 2003
It was over before we could do anything. This is maybe 25 years ago. A bunch of us had left work and gone to Westwood, the shopping district in west L.A., for dinner and a movie. We were walking down the street laughing and talking, most of us black, one or two of us white, when this car roared by and some white guy yelled out, “Go home, niggers!” He was gone before we could even register the insult. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that incident was traumatic or even that it ruined the evening. Yes, it made some jaws tighten and some eyes flash. But we were young, so mostly we just laughed it off. The reason it still sits large in memory all these years later is because, for me, it was the first. I’d never had that happen before. This was my introduction to one of the most vexing frustrations of racism. By which I mean its utter impersonality — the fact that the animosity has literally nothing to do with who you are. That can be hard to process, because it offends reason itself. You keep wondering how somebody can think so little of you when they don’t know the first thing about you. That’s a question employees of Abington Memorial Hospital in Abington, Pa., are doubtless grappling with right now. As reported earlier this month by the Philadelphia Inquirer, administrators at that hospital asked black staff members to stay out of the room of an unidentified woman who checked into the maternity ward in September. This was at the request of the woman’s husband, a white man who didn’t want black doctors or nurses assisting in the delivery of his child. The hospital has since apologized. For the record, something very similar happened three years ago in Nashville. According to The Tennessean newspaper, a woman with a life-threatening hole in her heart asked surgeon Michael Petracek to exclude a black male member of his surgical team from the operating room. The doctor agreed. He, too, later apologized. If this were television, events would have maneuvered themselves so that each of these racist imbeciles would have wound up in medical distress with only a black doctor on duty. Unfortunately, real life is seldom quite so apropos. I find myself wondering how the administrators could — as Mama used to say — “fix their mouths” to make such requests. It’s disturbing and disheartening to know that folks can be so open-minded and non-judgmental about such obvious racism. I mean, there wasn’t anything tricky about this. It was not, morally speaking, a close call. Forty years after Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” some oafish jackass said, “I don’t want no black people treatin’ my wife.” To which the hospital said OK. That’s grotesque. And if some of its black employees are now wondering, as I did on that sidewalk a long time ago, how somebody can judge them without even knowing them, well that’s probably the second most compelling question here. The first is this: Why did the people who did know them not stand up for them? You learn, as a black, to deal with the impersonal nature of other people’s hatred. If you are to have any sanity, much less happiness, in this life, that’s a must. But the black men and women of Abington Memorial were hired, presumably, because the hospital thought them qualified. They were retained, presumably, because they did good work. Now they — and we — discover how little that evidently means. What paltry respect it buys. How must it feel to be a black employee at Abington right now? Blindsided? Backstabbed? Betrayed? It hurts to receive humiliation from people who don’t know you. But it hurts worse, I suspect, to receive it from people who do. Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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