Posts Tagged ‘Race’

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“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s ideas. The library was open, unending free.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I read these provocative words today while on a literary get-away to Barnes and Noble. I don’t know that I agree with Coates’ characterization of classroom as a “jail” as I actually find listening to other people’s ideas stimulating, but his challenge to chart one’s own path in seeking truth and knowledge, the “library path”, is important.

In Between the World and Me, Coates describes the vibrant yet turbulent tale of the African American experience in America. His whole book is written as  a letter to his teenage son with his best thoughts on how to live with dignity as a black man in an imperfect America. With my own son having just turned 13, I was interested to hear his thoughts. One question I wonder about is how to prepare my son for a environment in which race is still a controversial issue without making race color everything he sees.

It’s an unfamiliar challenge for many of us Generation X immigrants from Kenya, because we did not grow up with race being such a throbbing undercurrent to daily life. I am, in fact, biracial and grew up thinking it was quite natural to have a Scottish mother and a Kenyan father. It meant chapati and Scottish soup all in the same week and a common national fanaticism for football/soccer. What was not to love? I also grew up with a black (Kenyan) President, learning black (Kenyan) history.

I will pause here to say that in Kenya, we also had to learn the history of EVERYWHERE else as part of our highly ambitious 8-4-4 educational system at the time. When I say history of everywhere, I mean it. Basically if something had happened in the past, anywhere, whether that be in Northern Mongolia or Nebraska, we had to know it. But I’m not bitter . . .

What struck me about Coates’ words is how much change, of any kind, depends on our willingness to challenge the various scripts in our lives. I once tried to change the tired script and perception of Africa for my students as a vast “country” full of war, famine and poverty, but delightful animals . . . I decided to walk all around downtown Nairobi with my sister taking pictures of less familiar images, skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, malls. My mission was dramatically cut short when a few of our law enforcement officials detained me, quite concerned that I was taking pictures of multiple buildings, a suspicious act even at that time in a world of terror attacks. I was released once the confusion was cleared up, but it stuck with me that changing a narrative is not easy. It demands persistence, stubbornness, courage.

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I started a new phase in my medical journey this week as I began my Masters in Clinical Research, a 2 year leave, before returning to complete and graduate from medical school in 2017. My research will mainly be in Neurosurgery, exploring the following topics:

1. The effectiveness of electrical stimulation in treating nerve injury.

2. A rare complication of brain aneurysm rupture treatment, known as PRES.

3. Patient costs of Pediatric Neurosurgical care in Kijabe, Kenya

I will also be working with Pediatric faculty on data visualization and bioethics projects. The bioethics project will involve analyzing the differing experiences of minority and majority pediatric patients in our University Hospital when facing difficult medical decisions.

Research, either personal or professional, is unique way to change the script; you can use hard earned data to challenge nonsense. I look forward to that challenge.

For today though, I am glad I could walk into a  room full of books, choose the knowledge I would seek, and create a script on the spot. Whether the original script is a skewed conception of Africa, a narrow view of each other by race, or medical treatments with flimsy support, some scripts were made to be changed . . .

Christian, in flight at the District Finals . . .

It took me a while, but I eventually noticed a pattern: It was the last of Christian’s track meets and I had just finished watching the closing races of the season. Long distance races have always intrigued me because they are lengthy enough for a narrative to develop, for a back and forth, for a test of stamina, for the dramatic come back win. But it wasn’t the dynamics of victory that caught my attention on Thursday. It was the reaction of the crowd to the various participants in the race. Predictably, the first few runners got the cheers of victory. But so did the very last runners, especially if they were way behind and struggling. We feel for the underdog, the determined “loser.” But what about those in between runners? What did they get? Wild cheers from their parents, perhaps (or sometimes suppressed disappointment). But from the crowd at large? Mild interest, half-hearted applause, if that. But mostly, they were invisible, extras to frame the exploits of the first runners and the determination of the last.

Invisibility has been on my mind since Michelle Obama mentioned the idea in her speech earlier this week at Tuskegee University. She spoke of the challenges of the African American experience this way:

“So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are . . . the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.  And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry.  It can feel isolating.  It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago.”

michelle-obama-tuskegee

Some of the kids at the middle school track meet worked really hard, gave it everything and still did not end up receiving honor for their work. They were invisible.

That made me consider my own experience with invisibility.

The truth is I don’t have a harrowing story to tell. I cannot say I have felt invisible on account of my race for example . . . well, that’s not quite true. Quick context: I grew up in Kenya, biracial with a Scottish mother and a Kenyan father. In Kenya, there is a defined racial category for mixed people. We are called “point-fives”; you cannot deny the mathematical accuracy of that term! Connotation? Not derogatory at all. If anything, the term is used positively. At least, that was how I experienced the word growing up. So, like many biracial African immigrants, I came to America, and became “black” for the first time (One of my favorite comedians, Trevor Noah, has a great bit on the same experience https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDXWUBIUi88!). The transition to “black” took some adjustment, but was ultimately fine, except in one area, casting.

I came to America to pursue a graduate degree in Theatre (Acting) and began to notice a trend. Directors would come up to me and say “I think you’d be great for this role” and I slowly began to notice that all the roles I’d be “great for” were black roles, that is explicitly written as black characters. Many of these roles were in fact good, but in those same plays I saw many other attractive roles that were not necessarily written as black characters. I was used to being selected for roles based on the depth and layers of the character, but now part of me was invisible. To some, I was black first, an actor second (quite the adjustment after being in an all Kenyan cast of Fiddler on the Roof many years ago. Yes, you read that right; 40 Kenyans playing Russian Jews without batting an eyelid!). That said, there have been many notable exceptions: I was cast as Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest and Pooh Bah in The Mikado by directors who recognized, but did not define, my acting by my color. I respected that.

But how did the limited view that some other directors took feel? It felt restrictive of course, but perhaps also put me in touch with certain parts of the minority experience in America in a more tangible way.

I must emphasize, though, that these challenges in no way compare to the very real, difficult and often daily experience of many in this country who are just not seen, either on account of their race, class, financial status, or position in all the races we run. But, I at least caught a glimpse of Ralph Ellison’s predicament in The Invisible Man:

“When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”

In medicine, there is an irony that it is possible to look at patients very closely, yet somehow manage not to see them. We pore over chest x-rays, dissect MRIs, scrutinize pathology slides, diligently save the finest image slices of their brains in a navigation program, yet somehow miss who they are.

So how then do we see the invisible?

There is a difference between the invisibility of an object and that of a person. A truly invisible object has some intrinsic quality that makes its presence unapparent. But an invisible person is not intrinsically invisible. That invisibility is conferred. That is what is so disheartening, that we as humans would ever choose to not see someone else. But perhaps, therein lies also the possibility for change. If we can confer invisibility, we can confer visibility. Each day can be an exercise in noticing the “middle runners.” Who is invisible to you? Who can you choose to see?

RalphEllison