Last Monday morning, like most mornings, my commute was in the company of NPR, which, like all the news outlets, was describing the preparations in Ferguson, MO, anticipating the announcement of the Grand Jury decision.
My last patient of the day was a man I have taken care of for some time, but this appointment would be his last visit, as the infection we’d been treating for so long, was finally resolved. After giving him the good news, we got to talking, as we always have done, about current affairs. He is a well-educated black man, retired from a middle-management career. He described, laughingly, being mistaken for an underling, and asked on job sites to be taken to his supervisor, when he was actually the boss on the site. He would play along, and go get one of his staff, always a white employee, who the client had expected to be in charge. My patient seemed to delight in the subsequent discomfort of the client on being shown the error of his assumption.
When I first met this patient, he assumed that I was part of the White Majority, and therefore unaware of the racial divides that he had dealt with all his life. Over time, we have talked of many events and situations, including the Travon Martin incident, and President Obama’s re-election. As we talked, he came to understand that I don’t hold the prejudices he expects from a white doctor, and I came to understand that he is a very thoughtful man, when you get past the initial Angry Black Man persona he projects on first impression. Being descended from slavery is a condition and reality of his life which informs his approach to the world, but doesn’t trap him in a sterotype.
We agreed that the Grand Jury outcome was foregone. No one in Baltimore on Monday seemed to expect an indictment of a policeman. As we wrapped up our visit, he said to me “I’m gonna miss our talks, Doc”. I’m going to miss talking with him, too.
I drove home, again with the soundtrack of the news describing the mounting tensions in Ferguson, MO.
At home, we sat down to the table with our boys, as we do every night. They told us about their day at school. I related the discussion I had had with my patient, and my fears of the impending violence that was likely to break out as a result of the announcement of the decision. Nine-year old S said “We are black like those people in Ferguson – we were descended from slaves like them!”
Now, one thing about Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian people, is that their country never was colonized or controlled by a European power. Ethiopians are very proud of never being slaves, but have always maintained their national independence. And so, from that perspective, I answered “No, you are not descended from slaves in the same way as the people in Ferguson. We can feel sad for the shooting of Mike Brown, and we can feel angry about a decision that we think is wrong, but we don’t share the same history.”
My husband countered “We were all slaves in Egypt – don’t we teach that every year at Passover? So, we all share the experience of overcoming slavery. S is right.”
Identity is so complicated. We like to build our identity with the labels of the groups we belong to. Our definitions usually start with the family we belong to, and then our neighborhood, our community, sometimes a religious community with overt shared values and traditions, our country, our culture. Our sense of ourselves often leads to exclusions: I am a woman, not a man, I have light skin, not dark skin, I am Jewish, not Christian, I am American, not a foreigner. But my family and my experiences are a demonstration that we can fit into different over-lapping definitions of identity that are often thought to be exclusive. We don’t need to live with a dichotomous, black-and-white, understanding of our own identity, and those around us. Isn’t is more interesting to realize that we are all the complex product of our ancestry, our culture, our experiences, and our own life journey – and that each person we meet is equally complex. No assumptions. No preconceptions.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for the accident of my birth, which placed me from day #1 in a multiracial family, and forced me from the beginning to cope with contradictory labels and assumptions. I am thankful for the family my husband and I have formed, with our grown daughter who is the blondest of blonds, and our two boys, who have their own rich heritage to learn about and grow into, and have the richest and warmest brown skins. I am thankful to our wonderful synagogue community, Tikvat Israel, who welcomed our boys into their midst, and never leave any doubt that they belong, as members of the Jewish people. And I am grateful for my own path in Judaism, which invites questioning, and asks us to look deep within ourselves to find our humanity, and to devote ourselves to Tikkun Olam – תקון עולם - repair of a broken world.
May it be so. Amen.