Noticing: A Self-Reflection

I’m not good at noticing things. My step dad believes that this will be perilous when I start driving, that I will be too caught up in something else to notice the road before me. When I’m walking places, I notice little things. The birds above me being the most common. I stare at them in the clouds, wondering if I’m peering up at a bird of prey or another stupid seagull. I will not notice the cars around me as I continue walking. It really is a wonder I haven’t been hit, and probably proves my step dad’s point. I want to be a school psychologist when I’m done with all my own schooling. I want a job that revolves around me being able to notice the behaviors and patterns of functioning in others. However, I could barely notice history when it was found in fiction. This inability to notice led me to finding some difficulty in this class, but it also led to growth. Had you asked me “How much consent do we really have?” at the beginning of the semester I probably would have just looked at you, wide-eyed with no answer. And to be fair, even now I don’t have a complete answer, an incomplete one yes, but because of the readings and discussions of this course I can continue to work on that question until I find a complete answer.

At first I completely misunderstood the epigraph. I believed that the epigraph related back to what I had been taught in high school, to notice things within a text and connect them back to each other. I didn’t think of how noticing things in fiction works could be applied to nonfiction works, and I certainly didn’t think of how that could be further applied to my day to day life. This lead me to read deeply into the nonfiction texts, as they were fact-checked and revolved around historical events. Of course, fiction texts could revolve around historical events, historical fiction is a sub genre, but I saw that as something loosely based on an event, especially when compared to nonfiction. So I clung to Medical Apartheid, as if it was my lifesaver instead of the “both/and”. For a while I wasn’t sure I was noticing anything at all. Then one day while I was commenting on the relationship between African American patients and charity hospitals, I called this relationship a “trade-off”. The word had just left my mouth, before I stopped, looked at Dr. McCoy who was watching and said “No that’s not right. A trade-off means giving something and getting something else of equal value, and that’s not what was happening in charity hospitals.” I like to think that this is when I first began to notice things, especially my own language. I was careful about what words I used and asked myself if the words I used really allowed for me to articulate what I meant. However when you look back at the blog post I made on this experience, you can still see how I attempted to ground my own noticing in the past, and in Medical Apartheid. I wasn’t ready to let my noticing serve as a “both/and” quite yet. 

When reading Toni Morrison’s Home I began to relate to Cee. Cee notices things but doesn’t understand what she’s noticing. She has been so sheltered by her brother Frank that she isn’t able to see when she is in danger. When Cee has an interview for a job as a doctor’s assistant she doesn’t make the connection between “him being a scientist” (pg.60) and the books in his office (pg. 65) on the science of eugenics. Cee also notices the good in the doctor’s actions, such as him sending patients to charity hospitals, or allowing other doctors to watch his work, but she doesn’t see how this can be bad. We can, especially through our outside readings, yet without those readings I would have been just as sheltered as Cee.  Many of us were aware of the danger Cee was in at the mention of the word “eugenics” (pg. 65) but we still had to look up the titles of the books to understand what they were about. Cee mentions needing to look up eugenics to better understand Doctor Beau’s work, and knowing that word would certainly make her aware of the danger she is in. However not all of us (me included) made the effort to notice the books, their titles, and what they were about. When we did look them up we saw they were anti-African American propaganda and books on keeping the Nordic race alive. Seeing this we are able to notice what Cee does not notice. This also shows us what we miss when we aren’t noticing. We have to be actively noticing and ready to see how what we notice connects with the world around us. If we just see the bad in the past, we leave ourselves vulnerable to be in Cee’s shoes, unable to see when it is in front of us. Looking back I now know I needed another push to start actively noticing. 

That push came when we began reading Clay’s Ark. Clay’s Ark made me unsettled from the start, maybe it was dangerous start, maybe it was switching from past to present, or the various ways consent was ignored. From the kidnapping to the forced infection of Blake and Rane to the way the Clay’s Ark organism changed its hosts, I found the way consent was ignored disturbing. We had spent the semester talking about how the medical field had historically ignored or manipulated the consent of African Americans. From using enslaved people to grave robbing to lying about injecting people with plutonium, Harriet Washington had it covered in Medical Apartheid. At that moment our reading was on how the birth control movement was walking hand in hand with the eugenics movement. I saw this paralleled with Rane’s blatant disregard for the kids the organism would make her want to have. Rane goes as far to say “I’d be willing to abort with an old wire coat hanger.” (pg. 532) when told that the organism makes you need and desire children. For Rane this means that her wishes, her choosing not to consent to pregnancy will be taken away upon forceful infection. This made me think that it was almost a direct opposite of how doctors had taken away women of color’s right to bear children through things like the “Mississippi appendectomy” (Medical Apartheid pg. 190). I saw both taking away motherhood and forcing motherhood as a loss of autonomy, something that was still around today and could be seen in the debate around reproductive rights. I began to draft up a blog post, but I wanted to make sure the argument was strong, and it was there that Dr. McCoy posed the question to me: “How much consent do we really have?”

Now, I was told I didn’t have to answer it, but to think on it, and I was thankful for not needing an answer. I didn’t know the answer, or what the right answer was. And that’s when things began to click, that I was always looking for the right answer, when sometimes there is no right answer. Of course there are wrong answers when it comes to consent, like taking the ability to consent away from someone. As a psychology student the idea of informed consent was that it had to be freely given after someone was made aware of all the risks and benefits, as well as being told they could back out at any time. That was how I came into this class viewing informed consent, and I felt learning about how the medical community had abused it, only strengthened my idea that this was the highest standard of consent. But how was I to notice when consent was lacking if I didn’t even know how much consent we had in the first place? 

Zone One by Colson Whitehead showed me that I could notice when consent was lacking, even in fiction. Mark Spitz, serves as a way to look and navigate through the world after the zombie plague has swept through. One of the things we as readers are drawn to is the mutilation of corpses, known in zombie genre as “taking trophies.” I had never seen what a violation of one’s bodily autonomy this is, despite watching it happen in The Walking Dead years ago with my family. Now I noticed how if using unwilling bodies for dissection was wrong, then so was taking pieces of those bodies. And I know, I am here typing out how Daryl taking someone’s ears is problematic, and someone is bound to say, “but those are zombies.” And? What is a zombie? The living dead, an undead person, a person. Corpses, throughout history have had their bodily autonomy violated, especially African American corpses. Enslaved people had to worry about the “dissection season”, which occurred around the winter time. One Virginian slave remarked “Please God, I hope when I die, it’ll be in the summertime.” (Medical Apartheid pg. 131). Dying in the summertime meant bodies could not be harvested and enslaved even after death, yet if one died in the winter their body could be further used for the experiments of doctors and scientists, even if they never consented.The violation of these bodily rights was seen as acceptable because African Americans were dehumanized to the point of being seen as a subclass. In the case of Zone One, the undead are seen as a subclass, if even seen as human. Because they are viewed as less than human or once a person, it is seen as acceptable to humiliate their bodies after killing them. Mark Spitz humanizes the undead, in comparison with others, including those in charge who say “No, you’re right. Mustn’t humanize them.” (pg.195). Like the lawmakers and powerful men in our world, those of Mark Spitz’s world understand the dangers of humanizing those one exploits. 

Looking back on this course and the things I have learned I hope it encourages you to ask yourself the same questions. How much consent do we have? How do we extend that consent to the walking dead, should the world ever come to that? When we notice but are unable to put it in context with the world around us, we leave ourselves vulnerable to repeating the mistakes of the past. Zombies lose their bodily autonomy because we forget that they are people, people just like you and I. African Americans lost their rights because people also saw them as less than a person, that they did not deserve the full protection informed consent offers. How can we continue to improve on who and under what situations informed covers if we don’t look at where consent is lacking and who is not protected?

We can’t. We cannot thoroughly examine how to keep updating informed consent without looking at the both/and, or in this case how consent was taken away in the past, how that was changed, but how that may fail in the future. We must be aware of both the past and the future and how they can connect to each other. How do we do this? Keep noticing, notice the tropes in your favorite shows or novels that seem wrong, notice when they call on the past, keep looking into the things that confuse you. Keep asking yourself questions, keep thinking on the questions posed to you, ignore the search for the right answer. Instead focus on the incomplete answer, the building towards an answer that won’t just give you the points needed for a good grade, but that will allow you to grow as a person. That may mean not having an answer and make peace with that. But do not make peace with missing the both/and, with missing the things you notice. Look into what you notice, there’s a reason you notice it. We can not continue to make progress without this, without each person bringing what they notice to the table. Actively noticing is the best way to help make sure we don’t lose sight of how we look out for each other. When we stop noticing, we continue to leave ourselves and others at the mercy of those who see us stopping, thus meaning we lose sight of the progress made and the progress still to come.

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