Monday, November 16, 2009

Elevator Observations Part V: Say it LOUD!

Grady elevator, courtesy of the iPhone

I stepped on the 'A' elevators at Grady which had arrived unusually fast this particular morning. Nice. A few moments later, a thirty-something year old woman reached into the door before it closed then looked at me and smiled. I glanced back at her and and nodded as the doors met and closed. She looked down in her purse to retrieve her ringing cell phone and I noticed a tattoo of a rose on her neck, barely discernible against her dark brown skin.

I briefly wondered about how one makes the decision to permanently ink the neck as opposed to some other more concealed area.


Like, did she wake up one day and say to her best friend, "Yeah, girl, I'm gonna tattoo my neck today!" and then did the friend give her a hi-five and say, "Yeah, girl that'll be hot!" Hmmm. Okay, I digress. (These are the important things I allow myself to think about on the Grady elevators. )

Opted to drop this question and mind my own business (as Harry often suggests I should do.) After we selected our respective floors, I refocused my attention to checking email on my iPhone. When my elevator companion ended her phone call, I could feel her giving me the once over. There was no way this ride would take place in complete silence.  

Sigh. Here we go.

" 'Xcuse me, doc. . .you mind me askin', what are you?"

For most people that would seem like a weird question, but it wasn't to me. This question was in no way foreign, and I knew exactly what she meant. "What are you?"-- as in, what is your nationality, your origin, your background, your race? Many folks reading this have never, ever had such a query come their way. . . . . but me? Please! I didn't even flinch.

So I bet you are wondering. . . .who does that? Who randomly steps on an elevator and asks a person something like that? It's not even something that one would even think to ask a friend, let alone a perfect stranger. So really, like who does that? I'll tell you who. My people, that's who.

That's right, I said it. My people. Black folks. There is something inherent in many of us (black folks, that is) that makes us want to determine with as much quasi-accuracy as possible someone's lineage and genetic makeup. Case in point, conversation in a predominantly African-American hair salon somewhere in the United States:

"What is Mariah Carey?"

"I'm pretty sure she's biracial."

"Are you sure? I thought she was Hispanic."

"Naw. Her momma is white and I think her daddy is black."

"Uh uh! You thinking about Halle Berry!"

"Really? I'm gonna Google it." (Pulls out her laptop under the hair dryer.)

"Let me know, girl, 'cause that don't sound right."

"I'm telling you, I'm right. You just confused 'cause she keeps it real mysterious. I think she's on some 'Tiger Woods' stuff."

"Still don't sound right to me. I thought she used to date Derek Jeter."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Isn't he Puerto Rican?"

"You thinking about A. Rod."

"Oh yeah. . . . what is Derek Jeter anyway?"

Perhaps it goes back to the dilutional mixing pot that African-Americans' genetic make up was subjected to during the centuries of slavery and beyond. . . . .or back to the turn of the century when some folks did their best to "pass" and when others were shunned by their own people for looking too African. Who knows? I can tell you this, though--in the nearly one hundred times that I have been asked that question, ninety nine of the times, I was asked by someone of my same culture--an African-American. So here's the deal. The "what are you" question really is code for, "You kinda look Black, but I'm not one hundred percent sure. What are you? Latina? Indian? Biracial? From the Carribbean? Ethiopian? Erytrean? Damn! What are you?"

Maybe since I understand the complexity of this innate curiosity, I never feel offended. Sometimes my standard one word answer--"Black"--isn't enough. This day was one of those times.

"Are you like, regular black?" Loaded question.

No, I'm not kidding. That was what she said next. And so I offered her what has become my standard follow up answer, "I'm from L.A. and my folks are from Alabama. I guess I am regular black."

"You look like you got something in you. That's why I asked." Of course.

I find this whole thing amusing, especially since it is my very own people that can't seem to place their finger on my origin. Perhaps it is the freckles or the texture of my hair (depending on the day and the weather.) When I was in residency, I wore my hair a bit longer, and got this question far more frequently. Back then, it was (still my own people) asking me if I was "Indian" or "Arab." And you guessed correctly--no one Indian or Persian ever mistook me for one of their own.

Me, as a resident of ambiguous origin, circa 1999

Once I cut all my hair off into my current shorn coiffe, it shifted to this more nonspecific thing. Sometimes the person, usually a patient, will just sit there squinting at me while I talk. They hear the "sista" in my voice, but still can't be sure. Kind of like the way you speak to someone over the telephone, and from the tone of their voice get a suspicion that they may be African-American. (Admit it, you do it.) I can always tell when it's about to happen, too. I can see a "what are you" coming a mile away.

Unlike my experience during residency, I have encountered a few folks in Georgia who have gone so far as to speak another language altogether to me, particularly Amharic (a language spoken in Ethiopia.) One guy at a parking garage let me park for free after greeting me by saying, "Salam!" I'm pretty sure that it was because he thought I was from his country. Another woman pulled into a gas station and asked me directions in Amharic, and when I told her I wasn't Ethiopian, she then incredulously replied with a heavy accent, "Wow! You look like my people!" Yeah, I get that sometimes.

True colors

Last month when I was on Grady wards, one elderly black patient kept referring to Adaeze A., my Nigerian-American intern, as her "colored doctor." Nobody ever seemed to hear her say it but me. She slid it in nearly five times before I just had to say something. Finally one day when we were rounding, I asked our patient, "Wait, what did you call her?" I gestured to Adaeze.

"My colored doctor," she proudly answered with a warm and toothless smile. This was in no way meant to be offensive. My late great auntie Mac used to refer to folks as "colored" and didn't think a thing of it. This patient was no different. It was simply an eighty-five year old black woman who happened to be born and raised in the southern United States doing her best to describe the young doctor who saw her every morning.

I looked over at Adaeze, my intern, and raised my eyebrows. Fortunately, she took it all in stride. Adaeze smiled and said to the patient, "Awww, come on, Mrs. S! You know folks don't say 'colored' anymore!"

Mrs. S. shrugged and smiled. There was no way she was changing her descriptor for an entire race of people after eighty-five years. Forget it.

"So, wait a minute, Mrs. S--what does that make me then?" I playfully quipped. She cocked her head sideways and gave me the "what are you" squint.

"I'm not sure what you is," she said initially--but then I think the "sista" in my voice resonated with her a bit. "Now that I thank about it, I thank y'all is both my colored doctors. And I love y'all." She looked around the room at the rest of the team--a variety of nationalities represented--Caucasian, Indian and Persian, flanking the foot of the bed. "I love all y'all." Love that. Colored or not.

"Say it loud. . . .I'm Black and I'm Proud!" -James Brown

Ironically, no white person has ever investigated the background of my DNA nor have they ever mistaken me for not being black. (I'm just saying.) Either way, the best part of all of this is that I love being the occasionally somewhat undiscernable black woman that I am, I really do. And I'm one person who doesn't need James Brown to nudge me with his battle cry. I'm proud of who I am. Even the parts of my culture that make me shake my head and say, "Lawd have mercy, chile!"

Honestly, I love the richness of every culture, love learning about other cultures, and celebrating them all. It's tempting to lose who you are by trying to assimilate, especially in a field like medicine. . . but that's just too much work. By not watering down who I am, I blur those lines that separate my race from the next just a little more. Being true to my roots around those who befriend me welcomes them to know more than just what they see on TV or read in magazines about black people.

Just as my friend Lisa B. teaches me Yiddish and all about her Jewish culture, I have no shame in sharing with her all that is unique to my African-American roots. Hey and now, the beauty in it is that when I see an overflowing stack of laundry, I now say "Oy vey!" and when she realizes that nobody did the dishes, she says, "Aww, hell no!"

Okay, but back to the chick on the 'A' elevator. . . .the real thing that should have immediately clued her, and each and every person of color who EVER asks me the "what are you?" question, that I am indeed black is this:

1. I was 0% offended by the question, and
2. I actually knew what the hell she was asking!

Me and my "sistafriends" (present and former Grady doctors) of several hues

The Godfather of Soul concurs, circa 1968

1 comment:

  1. Asians, too--Asians are always very curious about your exact lineage (particularly with other Asians). And it makes sense, right? Because if you're Taiwanese, that's really, really different from being Hong-Kong born Cantonese, for instance. And being from Shanghai is so so different from being from, say, Lizhou. (China is so freaking huge!)

    But I'm so glad you're open to talking about race/ethnicity/culture, including your own. I have a hard time in circumstances where everyone is trying to be 'colorblind,' because so often I feel like instead of that turning into equality it just seems to turn into, well, blindness.

    Also, your patient sounds adorable--my grandmother would totally do that smile-and-ignore-you-and-quietly-not-change thing too.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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