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A Race Towards Understanding Each Other Better

07/01/2020 10:10 AM | Anonymous

By Steven Reames

Leif Elgethun, CEO of a Sun Valley lighting retrofit software company, wrote an essay on what has transpired so far this year. His thoughts reflect many of my own that I had hoped to write about this month. He gave me permission to reprint a large portion of it.

"As we approach the halfway mark in 2020, we're confronting two diseases in the US. The first has crippled our economy and resulted in the deaths of far too many of our fellow human beings. And while the pain is severe, it will eventually lift as we build collective immunity and eventually have a vaccine. This disease should be bringing us together as we work together in kindness to protect those most vulnerable which will also protect our economy. I encourage you to think about the sacrifices you made that you will be proud to share with your grandkids and not focus on any short term inconveniences that are no less onerous than wearing shoes and shirts in stores. 

The second disease is one that America has been fighting since we were founded: Racism. Make no mistake, this disease is alive and well, fostered by apathy just as much as the racist super-spreaders. This disease is similar to the COVID disease in a few regards: 1) it spreads very easily, 2) some people have severe cases and some don't show any symptoms on the outside, and 3) there is no easy cure. The good news is we've been beating this disease since the Civil War and our collective will to eradicate this disease is stronger than ever. The even better news is we each can make a difference in our own lives, at work, and in our communities to ensure we put this dark chapter in our history to bed for good. 

I am a serial entrepreneur and one thing that I have always done is to respect the differences and beliefs that each of my employees, customers, and partners brings to the table. I have come to the conclusion that this is not enough. I am making significant changes in my personal and business life to do more listening and learning so I can truly understand the systemic racism embedded in our country first. I'm also spending a lot of time looking inward to understand how my beliefs and actions can be improved, including some hard truths I haven't wanted to explore."

I have been trying to spend more time looking inward as well. Typically, on controversial issues, I stand quiet somewhere in the middle of polar extremes, attempting to be a bridge builder rather than a bridge burner. I have a desire to move progressively in some ways with an anchor of conservatism that often holds me back. I lean revolutionary inside, but due to politeness and not wanting to upset the apple cart, I often lean backward into quiet observation and subtle influencing.

Unfortunately, I think that would make me part of the complicit silence that allows racism to propagate. In fact, as I read some of Martin Luther King Jr’s quotes, I am even more convicted that trying to walk the fence cannot be justified.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people."

"There comes a time when silence is betrayal."

ACMS promoted the Idaho Healthcare for Black Lives Matters Rally held on the Capitol steps June 20th, which was collaboratively organized by several ACMS members. Their goal was to hold an event for all in healthcare to promote anti-racism as a core value and stand in solidarity with those who feel most impacted by it. Additionally, they wanted to publicize how health disparities are experienced in the U.S. by people of color.

As we did so, I was encouraged by some physicians to step very carefully and consider keeping myself and ACMS out of the fray. I heard them as sincere friends, wanting what is best for me and for the viability of the organization they love and the unity it has stood for, and I appreciated their concern. I understood the intent was to "be careful of getting entangled with movements that might have more radical elements or different platforms you can't align with."

But, when a white male physician says “Steve, even though you and I personally believe that racism is evil and don’t practice it, there are many members who will not appreciate ACMS getting involved in this, but they will never say anything to you,” how am I to interpret that?  Is it not a plea by the "many members" to keep the organization’s capital and influence in the bank to spend another day on issues or in ways that most of its member physicians can agree on? Unfortunately while it may maintain the stature of ACMS, it quietly leaves the bifurcated status of privileged and marginalized groups of people unchallenged. And the status quo goes on.  

When Ty Waters – a recent African American graduate of FMRI - shares personal anecdotes of coming into an OB ward and being told “we don’t want a black man delivering our grandchild....”

...when a patient refuses to believe his black physician's M.D. credentials insisting “no you must mean you’re a physician assistant…”

…when a physician of color tells me that she has been treated with more disrespect in Boise than she ever experienced on the East Coast, and recalls times she is assumed by patients and staff alike that she is a janitor…

…when other physicians are told their British-Indian accents are "too hard for patients to understand" and asked "how did they get through medical school anyway?"…

…and when all these factors together help perpetuate healthcare disparities for people of color…

…at what point do we – do I - have to say “No, we can’t always try to hold the middle ground”? What is best for me and what is best for ACMS’ historical neutrality on controversial issues probably needs to be set aside to promote what is best for those who have the least power. In fact, our board did just that in 2018, voting to break a decades-long neutral stance on controversial subjects, when it stepped up to support the passage of Proposition 2 to expand Medicaid in Idaho. That issue might be easier to embrace by most physicians who understand that the lack of access to healthcare clearly leads to bad health outcomes, even if they don’t agree with the political solution.

I am not a physician and I may be naive and uninformed, but I simply do not believe that most ACMS members are split on the issue of race in America, that more change needs to happen urgently. I do suspect, however, many are subversively or unconsciously encouraged not to get too fussy about it or align with radical elements about it. 

My own attempts to reach across racial lines to do more listening and learning and  always feel awkward, because I am afraid of offending, and so I say nothing. But, I recently messaged an African-American classmate of mine. I apologized to him for offering in third-grade to help him read better if he would just let me touch his 'fro. He replied that his memories of me were positive and friendly. But I also told him how I wish we could somehow return to being more like those young children who were not afraid to reach out and explore our differences because we hadn't yet been trained not to  by our culture and fears.

So I encourage you - echoing Leif’s sentiments above - to commit to doing more listening, learning, looking inward, and asking ourselves and each other tough questions. Perhaps we could start to dialogue with people who have a different viewpoint with questions like “Can you help me understand how you’ve come to believe or think that way?” When we engage with the experience of others – conservative or liberal, radical or neutral, privileged or marginalized, black, white, brown or otherwise – it is a step towards gaining more compassion, empathy, and respect for those whose lives are different than our own.

Surely, we can all agree upon that. (But if I am wrong, please help me understand how you've come to feel that way too.)


And just to be clear, these opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ada County Medical Society Board of Directors nor its members.


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