Knowledge and the Ability to Notice

Dionne Brand once said, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” The ability to notice involves observation and understanding.  “To notice” seems like a simple task but is a difficult skill that can be strengthened. For example, one day it was pointed out to me that one of my best friends used the word “like” very often. Even though I had never noticed this trait before, everyday thereafter I noticed and was frustrated by the overuse of that conversation filler.  I believe that this same approach can be used to help eliminate racism. If everyone could be educated on atrocities that have occurred in the past they are far more likely to realize similar situations and avoid them in the future.  Everyone is responsible to educate him or herself and notice acts of racism so that they can begin to combat it.

I believe that the skill of noticing is paramount in changing societal views on race. If we as students, and ambassadors of change, can understand the formation and origins of race, we can begin to affect positive change.  Geraldine Heng wrote in her book The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, “…race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than substantive content”.  Human differences are evident, but the foundations of race as we know it were set in place to elevate some and reduce others. Now that race has been defined as a structural relationship, observers can begin to identify acts of racism. Once acts are identified as racist to the general public, actual informed action can take place to prevent it. As a member of a group of people that experiences little discrimination, not all acts of racism were obvious to me. By learning more about racist acts in the past, I have gained a new ability to notice the numerous acts of racism that occur everyday without being noticed by ignorant bystanders.  Knowledge is a tool that is paramount in importance in terms of combating bigotry.

My prior belief of medical professionals is that they are some of the most knowledgeable, caring and selfless people in today’s society.  Harriet A. Washington has shaken my assumption in her book Medical Apartheid. It was a shock to me that doctors, in our not so distant past, treated African-American patients with such negligence. Washington tells of a story where a doctor “decided to amputate the leg of a fifteen-year-old slave girl without making any other attempts to treat the relatively minor injury”.  Previous to embarking on this journey I would have taken a doctors decision to be irreproachable. However, this act was willingly malicious to a poor girl who happened to be born with a darker shade of skin and it opened my eyes to the racism present among people devoted to healing.  This education has allowed me to be more cautious of those I believed to be antiracist, and notice racism in the future.

I fear that without proper knowledge of past atrocities in the medical field, new medical professionals are unequipped to notice discriminatory acts. Dr. Lisa Cooper of John Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted a study that showed that nearly two thirds of doctors exhibited unconscious racial bias. These doctors lack the ability to notice their own discriminatory acts against certain races. I do not believe that the majority of doctors see themselves as racist but are subjected to the effects of racist professionals in the past. I believe that is should be every physician’s own responsibility to educate himself or herself in order to notice that they are providing preferential care. The racism demonstrated by the doctors in the study may be unconscious but through education they can begin to “…notice that you can notice” as Dionne Brand has put it.

I enrolled in Literature, Medicine and Racism because it was a topic that was previously foreign to me. As a student applying into the medical field, I have not been informed on the racist past.  I have been educated to think about physicians as scientists who pursue knowledge in order to better aid humanity. Of course, this has not always been true. In order to become a physician who combats racism instead of perpetuates the system of racist traditions I must become educated on the immoral history of the field. A philosopher named George Santayana, has explained that “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. This quote inspires me to learn as much as I possibly can about the shortcomings of the profession that I am soon to enter, so I gain the ability to notice every act of racism and do everything in power to correct those actions. I vow to become more informed to strengthen my ability to notice and enlighten others that they to have the ability to notice.

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