Whenever I'm on wards, I find myself reflecting on my time as a resident. That was a pivotal time of becoming. And like one of my favorite quotes says, "Becoming is better than being." All day every day, it is.
Here's another story of just that. More will follow.
A little too black-ish
When people ask me where I'm from, I generally tell them that I'm from "the Los Angeles area." People that know nothing about the west coast pretty much leave it at that. But, as it turns out, a lot of people seem to know at least a little bit about Southern California. And so they gain clarity with questions like, "Where about in Los Angeles?" or, if they're super savvy, they'll try to throw a little shade at me by accusing me of being from those far away cities that are so far that they don't even count as Los Angelinos. Matter of fact, they even have a name for folks from those far-as-hell areas. I think they call it "the inland empire."
But I digress.
My point in saying all that was just to say that anyone who knows anything about L.A. gets it when I reveal just where in L.A. I was raised. I was raised in Inglewood. Yes, it's the suburbs. But no, it's not Kardashian-esque Calabasas or Superbad Santa Barbara. Nope. It was a place with predominantly underrepresented minorities and gangster graffiti on the sides of cinder block walls. But. For me, it was home and the place that had a hand in shaping me.
From there, I went to two historically black institutions of higher education in a row--Tuskegee and then Meharry. And in those places, I was a minority person by on the U.S. Census, but not in my life. My peers looked like me and so did my teachers. Black culture didn't have to get tucked under my shirt or packed on ice in the back of my freezer. It was the norm and simply the way of that world.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I never really, truly felt what it was like to be "one of the only black people" for a sustained period of time until I started residency. I was the only African American in my class of residents, and there weren't a whole lot of faculty who looked like me either.
People were super nice, though. Super nice. When I arrived in the hospital, it became quickly apparent to me that after all of those years as a minority in the majority, I didn't know how to assimilate. At all. The one week that I tried was so exhausting that I quickly told myself that I simply would not. Sure, I could speak standard English. And I'd been taught at Meharry how to be professional in my interactions. But what I couldn't do was behave in a way that wasn't me. I couldn't ignore things that connected me culturally to patients, colleagues, and staff members. That just wasn't me. So I settled into something that felt right. Me being me and being cool with everyone else being everyone else.
There was this guy who was one class ahead of me in residency. He was also black and had attended a historically black medical school just like I had. But that's pretty much where our similarities ended. He'd made a full time gig out of trying to be accepted through watering himself down. Black folks around the hospital got the virtual stiff arm from him.
When I first arrived, he'd taken it upon himself to look out for me. I can't say that I really wanted that from him since mostly it meant harsh whispers in the hallways about either what some fellow person of color was doing wrong or how each and every occurrence was a diabolical plot to take down the residents and medical students of African descent.
Mostly, I smiled politely while secretly ignoring him. That is until the day that I became his target.
"Hey Dr. Draper! Is this your admission? He needs orders." Sanika, the ward clerk on the hospital ward where I was working, tapped me on the shoulder while I was writing a note. I'd already been up all night admitting patients. I was scribbling down my final note when she said that. Sanika and I were always friendly and I liked her a lot. Our exchanges were usually relaxed and light. This day was no different.
"Naaaaaah, playa. I'm post call."
"Oh, my bad. You gon' do something fun?" she asked. She was patting the top and sides of her head with her hand when she said that. The blonde hair weave she wore seemed to be on it's last leg and, as every sister knows, the "weave pat" is something girls do when they don't want to mess up their weave tracks by scratching.
"Who me? I'm probably I'm gonna fall asleep on my couch for a few hours. Then I'll wake up and go kick it with some of my friends later on." I cocked my head and chuckled as she continued tapping her head with her hand. "Dag. Is it that bad?"
"I'm getting this wig split!" Sanika laughed. "The whole shebang, girl. Cut, chemicals, all that!"
I knew right away what she meant. This was slang for going to the hair salon to get her hair done. "Do your thang, girl!" I said while giving her a high five. We both laughed out loud one last time and that was that.
A few moments later my pager went off. Cringing, I called back. I was super relieved to find that it was Albert, the guy in the class ahead of me and not a nurse on one of the floors.
"Do you have a minute?" he asked politely.
"Sure do.What's up."
"I'll just come to you,"
"Okay, Kool and the gang! I'm on the nurses station on 9B."
"Did you just say, 'Kool and the Gang?'"
"Ha ha ha . . .yup."
"Ummm. . . .okay. On that note, I'll see you in a minute."
I wasn't sure what he meant by that response, but soon I would.
A few moments later, Albert was sitting next to me with this really disappointed look on his face. He let out an exaggerated sigh as if whatever it was he had to say was going to hurt him more than it would me. Which made zero sense considering we just didn't have that kind of friendship. Like, at all.
He let out another enormously enormous sigh and this time he perched one of his elbows on a folded arm and rest his cheek in one hand. With his head cocked sideways, he squinted his eyes and finally spoke. "Kim? What's your deal?"
I'm sure I looked mad confused. Because I was. "Huh?"
"I'm just trying to figure out what your deal is. I mean. . .what is it you aspire to achieve in your residency?"
I was still lost. "Uhh. . . . get good training? Be a good doctor? Isn't that what we all want?"
When I said that part, he sighed again. I couldn't stand the way he looked at me. Like he was Mr. Miyagi but without the love and caring that went into the Karate Kid.
"You're kind of scaring me, Al. What is this about?"
"It's about the fact that you ain't in Kansas any more, Dorothy." He sort of curled his lips when he said that dropped his eyelids to half mast for emphasis.
"You are a physician now. And you are no longer at Meharry. You can't be talking to Sanika about her weave appointments or kiki-ing at the nurses' station with her either."
"What the hell are you even talking about? Sanika is my buddy. What the hell is wrong with me talking to Sanika?"
"I didn't say don't talk to her. I'm saying you don't need to be all "honey chile" and "girl-fren" with her in earshot of other people. It's . . .it's just. . . "
"It's just what?"
"It sounds . . really. . .ignorant, Kim. And, well, n-word-ish."
When he said that--and let me be clear: He said the real n-word with "-ish" tacked on to it--I just sat there with my eyes widely gazing at him. I waiting for a beat to see if he would say he "juuuuuust kidding" but he didn't.
And so. I just sort of sat there not knowing what to say. I was only a few months into my internship and the last thing I wanted to do was shoot myself in the foot from the very start. That pretty much was the end of the conversation. He'd cloaked me with a new insecurity that I hadn't quite felt before that moment. And it kind of sucked.
N-word-ish. He'd even tacked an 'r' onto the end of that n-word for emphasis. It was hard to shake. I walked around self conscious for the rest of that week. I second guessed all of my interactions with people in elevators, hallways and the cafeteria. My exchanges with Sanika were decidedly more vanilla. It wasn't a good feeling.
The following week, I was at one of my favorite classes in the gym one night after work. It was a step aerobics class and the instructor played lots of really upbeat music--a lot of which was popular urban music. Some old school song came on that I loved and to which I knew all the words. And you know? I did what I always I started shaking my hips reciting the lyrics. Waving my hands in the air and laughing. Half of my friends in that class hadn't ever even heard that song before. But they seemed to dig it that I had heard it enough times to chant the lyrics without blinking. Like, dig it where it was fine and no big deal.
But work was different. Or was it?
Eventually I did the thing that I've always done in such situations. I called Poopdeck, my dad. Like always, I described all of the players involved. I painted a picture of Sanika with her unnatural blonde hair weave and dark brown skin, including the elaborate tattoo on her forearm with her son's name in cursive. Next I gave all the details about Albert. His preppy attire and dress pants with suspenders which he insisted we all refer to as "braces." The way he rolled his eyes when I walked up on the ward saying things like, "What you know good?" and using words like "chile."
"How are things going in terms of your job?" Poopdeck asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Your performance. What are the people that matter saying about you?"
I thought about that for a few moments. "Well. Actually, Dad, things are going well so far. I mean, I've gotten some really positive evaluations and feedback on my first rotations."
"That's good." Dad paused for a moment and then spoke again. "Do people seem uncomfortable with you being black?"
"With me being black? Uhh. . .if they do, they don't make it obvious."
"Let me be more clear. Does it seem to be an issue that you aren't ashamed of being black?"
That I'm not ashamed? Damn.
But you know? He was right. He was as right then as he is now. I'm not ashamed of who I am. I'm not. And you know what else? I don't like the idea of anyone else feeling ashamed of who they are either.
So that's what we talked about. My father had been in corporate America for several years. Like me, he was okay with himself and proud of his heritage. But lucky for me, he'd navigated those waters long enough to know that sometimes it could be different for African Americans. And you know what? Succeeding seemed to come down to a couple of simple things, that is, according to what I gleaned from that discussion with my dad.
First, it comes down to being authentic about who you are and where you come from. But you have to do it while still leaving room for other people to feel invited to be authentic, too. If a person doesn't like who they are--that should be explored first. But if they do feel happy to be who God made them, that don't hide it divide it. Own it, man. And give others permission to own theirs, too.
It kind of reminds me of a funny thing one of my kids said several years ago:
"Yay ME doesn't mean booooo YOU."
The other thing was pretty much the same thing he's told me over and over again for years. Be excellent. When you work hard and give your best, your differences might be received positively. He also explained that sometimes things just are totally unfair and that, without using these words, pretty much let me know that sometimes the haters are just gon' hate. The best panacea? Sustained excellence.
And, of course, my dad also was really awesome about reminding me to appropriately walk the line between "doing me" and being unprofessional. That said, what that meant would be for me to determine.
That was a long time ago. I'm older now and have figured out that being true to myself requires a lot less memory and energy than trying to be what I think everyone else wants. I've also learned that your authenticity draws the same out of others.
Needless to say, I really frustrated Albert a whoooooole lot over the next few years. He pulled me up a few more times during my internship and hissed at me about being too black. It was interesting how worked up he would get over things that outwardly suggested blackness and how hard he'd worked to live true to the "less is more" mantra, but how much he complained behind close doors about "the man" trying to bring a brother down. It got really old after a while. Thank goodness he at least spared me that word "n-word-ish" that he'd used the first time.
That reminds me. Once I got some more time under my belt, I did things just to tick him off. I rolled my neck and talked about what I'd seen on BET the night before. Ha ha ha he hated it.
Here's what I know: When people don't like who they are or are harboring some self hatred, what they resent the most is someone else walking fully and boldly in the very aspect of themselves they despise. Black folks. Gay folks. All folks, man. And look--I'm not saying I have it all sorted out. But I do authorize myself to be who I am. And to not fall under some cloak of drone-like assimilation with whatever the majority is doing.
Albert was wrong. Not only was he wrong, he was disrespectful and hurtful. But now, instead of feeling mad at him, I feel sort of sorry for him. Some piece of me hopes that over these last few years he realized that what the world really wanted was the real him. And that him admitting to tasting chitlins or knowing the words to an old rap song. that is, if he really knew it, isn't "n-word-ish" at all.
Or any kind of -ish for that matter.
I say be who you are. Who you really are. And like my daddy said--what that means is for you to determine.
Happy Saturday. You know what? This ramble made me think of this--just in time for Black History Month.
Here is me last week after dropping off carpool. Some old Run DMC had just come on the radio and I STILL knew every single word. And you know what? I'm a girl from inner city L.A. who witnessed the birth of hip hop. Those words are in my head right along with the words to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." And you know what? Both are a part of me. And I ain't the least bit 'shamed.