I was fortunate enough to be able to go to my friend’s wedding in Indianapolis in October. My three-year-old son called it “India with Apples.” This is a friend that I’ve known since I was in first grade, and my parents and his parents are good friends. We were at the Friday night celebration and enjoying ourselves and decided to walk back to our hotel. We made it to the revolving door to the hotel when we met what I thought was a nice man who said hello. I also said hello. I was in the revolving door with my father. He then asked, “Are you a terrorist?”
My father wears a turban. He moved to the United States in 1978. He has been the Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Yulan, New York, a small town near where he lives. He has been so instrumental in the growth of Orange County, New York that he has been the president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, Lion’s Club and Rotary Club. But, who cares? He could have moved here and just existed, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
I confronted this man in a way that I haven’t felt that was necessary since 15 years ago when I felt this type of hate after September 11th. I felt obnoxious when I tried to justify how American I am to him by telling him about having been born in Minneapolis and living in Texas. When he told me he was served in the military, I obligatorily said, “Thank you for your service.”
I have plenty of friends who have served in the military since I live in San Antonio. Both of my grandfathers served in the British military during World War II for the Allied Powers as Indians. Again, none of this should matter because there is no circumstance under which another human being should make a remark like that to a stranger when it will obviously make them uncomfortable.
Many of my parent’s friends jumped to my aid because they remember me as a teenager and felt that I needed help and felt that they/we were all being attacked by an innocuous statement in a revolving door into a hotel. My father, in particular, was stunned because he has spent his life trying to give me the best life that he could.
This man continued to believe that it was acceptable to ask “Are you a terrorist?” in spite of all of our dissension. Several people were videotaping it in the lobby of the JW Marriott; I believe because they were flabbergasted by the actions of this person … like I was, and I hope they come forward with their videos to educate others.
I am most worried that I never worried about this. I told this person, this other human being who thinks it’s OK to start a conversation with the question “Are you a terrorist?” that the thing that I was most worried about is that I have a three-year-old son that I have to teach about racism in our society and he did not seem to be bothered by this. I hope that his daughter, who is in the medical field, sees this and apologizes for her father’s hateful message. I hope that she teaches her children NOT to hate. I hope that she teaches her children respect. I hope her children don’t carry such vitriol that their initial response to a man with a turban is “terrorism” as a joke. This man stated that his intention was sarcasm, but I am a sarcastic person, and I have never thought to act this way.
It is not OK to ask another human being if they might be the evil associated with the worst of our society — regardless of what this man thinks. I am fortunate to have been around other like-minded people who came to my side; ultimately, the man who said these terrible things agreed: “I f*cked up.”
But here’s where things get tricky: three weeks after this incident, I was seeing patients back in clinic in San Antonio. I am a pain medicine physician and practicing in an academic center. One of the fellows had just walked out of a room and discussed a patient with me, who happened to be a middle-aged Caucasian female. I told him that I would go in and see her on my own and he could move on to the next patient. I walked in and said, “Hi, I’m Dr. Nagpal, nice to meet you …” And she said, “I know, you were just in here.”
It is true that the fellow who had just seen the patient was Indian, Sikh, bearded and approximately the same height as me. It is also true that we were both wearing scrubs. I explained the situation to her, and she stated, “I don’t know, you all look the same.”
This statement would not have affected me at all if not for the incident that I had in the hotel in Indianapolis. But thoughts immediately raced through my head.
Who all looks the same? Doctors? Indian doctors? Men? Indian men? Men with beards? I immediately assumed, and I still do, that she meant that all Indian men look the same, and I took the statement derogatorily. It is most likely that it was not mean to be derogatory, but that’s how I perceived it, and it’s how I still perceive it. It was a comment that would have never bothered me before, and now it does. More importantly, did it change my behavior as a physician? Will similar instances cause me to treat patients who make similar statements differently in the future? I certainly hope not, but it would be foolish of me not to consider the possibility of a new unconscious bias that I may have developed when I treat patients who I may perceive as racist in any way, even if they are not racist.
So this is the thing that is happening to me. I have had to question my own day to day life and even my own decision-making because of the thoughtless comment made by another human who has no idea how it may have impacted the lives of others. For what it’s worth, I still have not discussed the incident with my father, who I believe is too embarrassed to talk about it. And so, I hope that the man who said the awful things he said apologizes again, and I am more than happy to hear the apologies of his family and friends. His words were not OK, and his actions of defense of his bizarre thoughts were not OK, whether it was in Indianapolis or anywhere else in the world.
I am happy to accept his apology. But I am not happy to accept his apology and then move on because I will always be worried about whether my three-year-old son will have to suffer what I suffered in front of my own father. And I will always be worried about whether it will cause me to have a lapse in judgment.
Ameet Nagpal is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. This article originally appeared in the Physician Grind.
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