(This post is a continuation of my last two and is related to my father’s experience with racism in medicine)
After finishing Fortune’s Bones, I Facetimed my father to explain what we learned the black community had suffered through in the name of medicine and how Fortune’s story in particular bothered me. At first, I spoke in detail about Medical Apartheid and how it depicted the many disturbing processes used to obtained cadavers and skeletons from non-consenting black individuals for medical/dental students like himself. One example I gave him was how “hospitals habitually delivered black bodies directly from the wards to the autopsy tables without asking anyone’s consent” and how a similar practice still survives “in policies that continue to appropriate the bodies of “friendless paupers” such as the homeless—a disproportionate number of whom are black—for medical purposes.” (Washington p118.) I tied this to Fortune’s story and how it connected with me on a personal level and made me concerned that our skull might not have just simply been donated. He totally understood and was visibly disturbed by what I had to tell him, too. He said he although he was bothered to learn all of this, that “unfortunately (he) did witness racism while in school but not on any level just described.” Hearing this made me both concerned and interested in what he had to say so I asked him if he could further explain those experiences.
My father said that he saw examples of racism when he was a resident at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx during the 80’s after graduating from NYU. He explained that during his residencies, a select few of his peers and one of the head faculty members would make racist comments about patients behind their backs. He said that “the use of discriminatory terms for black and Hispanic patients when they (the patients) couldn’t hear the doctors speaking was common for amongst a few people.” While this was bad to hear, we both agreed that these actions were subtler and not as extreme as what Fortune and numerous others have gone through.
He explained that as wrong as he and others felt that these comments were, that there was not much that they could do about it besides telling their peers to not to use such language around them. This was because addressing these issues in general would be seen as “starting trouble” in his department due to the unspoken understanding that “it was the way of the times” and that there “was no reason to think differently because the department was all white anyway.” As it turned out his entire resident program was all white by choice of the racist faculty member because they held a high position and had a say who of who were the students in the program. If you were to even bring up such issues with the staff, the racist staff member would be one of the people to deal with the situation and because they held so much power that as my dad put it “mean trouble for you”. My father said it was understood therefore, that expressing any concern could potentially ruin a young doctors career if the head faculty staff member felt you needed to be removed from the department because you were creating issues he was not sympathetic towards. With this in mind it became not worth it for any staff or resident to create an issue although what was going on was obviously wrong and proliferating a safe space for racism. As disturbing as this atmosphere in his program was to him, there were some things that seemed to stand out as positives.
I was partially comforted later in our conversation when I heard that despite the racist comments, that all patients received the best care possible regardless of their race from all doctors. I was also happy that my father told me that there was no bias towards the use of black bodies for dissections like we had spoken about when discussing Medical Apartheid. My father talked about how when they were dissecting the cadavers or working with real skeletons, that everyone handled all bodies with a tremendous of respect that was drastically different from how Fortune and many others ever were. Although the racism my father witnessed was subtler, there are still obvious issues with the fact that he witnessed any at all and even saw a system in place that protected it. This in addition with the inability to clarify if cadavers and skeletons that were used were obtained with consent still presents ethical issues that are troubling to think about.