Reflections on the MLK Holiday and the Silence of “Allies”
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr stated these words in 1966 at the Second National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. In 2021, more than 350,000 people in the United States are dead from COVID-19, a disproportionate number of those dead are Black and Brown people. If we agree with Dr. King’s statement and we see disproportionate racial health outcomes, what should be the response to learning that a Black woman physician and educator is suspended then fired after facilitating a medical school discussion on bias and racial health disparities? The response from outside of the school has been an overwhelming outcry against this injustice. From within the school, as the Black woman physician and educator at the center of this injustice, I experience immense silence from my colleagues.
The morning of May 29, 2020 I woke to face another day. It was one of those mornings I wished the world could stop, so I could catch my breath. George Floyd’s body was snuffed out a few days earlier. His death, captured on video held by a 17-year old Black teen, was viewed worldwide. The ensuing days were an expression of rage. I woke up to images of a Minneapolis police building burning. I could feel the pain of my community; it is a pain that can be consuming.
That morning, I awoke knowing that I had a virtual department meeting. The meeting opened with the administrator asking about positive moments in our week. A fairly mundane question, if George Floyd had not died calling for his mama. The question nor the the responses reflected the pain I was experiencing. Black people live in constant oppression. There was no acknowledgement of the pain in my community. No acknowledgement of the pain of fellow Americans. My pain continued to build until it imbued me with the courage to breach that wall of oppressive positivity we often have to face in our work environments. I wrote in the chat “my world is on fire.”
This statement was acknowledged by other Black women. Black women who shared their emotions. Even writing that sentence feels inherently dangerous. During childhood, Black people often learn to modulate ourselves because we are not accepted culturally for who we are by predominant white America. As a minoritized group, we learn to modulate ourselves for the comfort of the majority. We modulate ourselves because whiteness, a racialized construct, is the gatekeeper and it keeps many gates (to jobs, education, housing, etc). The way we wear our hair on a job interview, the volume of our laughter in the office, the choice of our words when around non-Black people, the names we give our children reflect how we are regulated to varying degrees by whiteness. Even our emotions are regulated; consider the stereotype of the angry Black woman. Though we are human, we are not allowed to freely express anything resembling the most base of emotions. An emotion integral to indicating when our boundaries, our values are violated.
The most powerful tool of that regulation is silence. Within my professional world, silence has been the overwhelming response to my pain. Silence does not confirm that we are heard. Silence does not offer empathy or comfort. Silence is not inert. Silence is a tool of oppression. The oppressor creates an environment of fear or doubt that forces or allows others to be silent. This silence allows oppression to go unchecked.
The morning of August 28, I awoke not knowing that my teaching privileges would be revoked by that night. That morning, as a Black woman, a physician, and an educator, I facilitated a discussion on bias and racism in medicine among a group of eight medical students. That conversation has cost me the appointment I had earned, my dream job, with that medical school.
That morning, I woke up not knowing that the day would mark the beginning of one of the most painful periods of my life. This pain is ongoing because I have now been wrongfully fired from school. Since my unjust suspension and now firing for speaking on topics of bias and racial health disparities, the majority of my supporters within the school are Black or POC. There is still a wall of silence from white colleagues. The silence is traumatic. The school threw me out with the parting words “We don’t want to see you here.” The silence from the majority of my physician colleagues makes me feel as though I do not exist. My life at the school was snuffed out, but few seem to be watching. How can a person be so effectively erased?
I look to Dr. King again for the answer. In 1963, he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail sharing
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is … the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
Since making a public statement about my suspension on December 10 on Twitter, there is continued silence from colleagues. Part of me hoped for “we didn’t know.” My supporters remain steadfast and some have stated their support publicly. No one new has reached out. Silence is not inert. Silence benefits the status quo, the oppressor. Knowing how the silence of faculty and school leadership has traumatized me, I cannot imagine what if feels like for Black students, in particular, to be in class with little acknowledgment of the crisis school leadership created. There is definitely a crisis. It will take a break in the silence for the school community to heal. If, at the very least, we use the King holiday to take a moment of reflection, everyone within the school community has to consider how their actions promote the written values of the school or perpetuate the crisis created by school leadership.
As Americans grapple with who we are as a country, it will be the smaller battles that each of us engage in that will guide us to the answer. In medical education, we have to commit to training in bias and racial health disparities so that we do not continue to commit to the inhumanity Dr. King saw in health care. I am grateful for my public support. Their voices have been loud and steadfast. Their daily encouragement is a balm and restores my hope that medical education can be a safe place for Black academics.