There is a certain amount of privilege associated with being white, educated, and upper-middle-class while protesting as a frontline worker. There is also a large amount of protection and a lack of “ fear of consequences” mentality. Case in point – my clinic held a kneel in as part of #whitecoatsforblack lives on June 5, 2020. I decided to informally lead the kneel in as it took place on Breonna Taylor’s birthday. Breonna Taylor was an EMT who risked her life working during a pandemic, only to be murdered in the “comfort” of her home.
I felt a connection with her as a fellow Black, healthcare worker and really wanted to make sure we centered the kneel in around honoring her.
On the morning of the kneel in, I already had it set in my mind that the kneel in would be outside for maximum visibility. I had mentally secured a space adjacent to the staff entrance outside that could work. The morning of the kneel in, I made signs and hung them up outside on the clinic building. One of my directors saw that I had chosen a spot that, albeit outside, was not the best location to make the biggest visual impact to.
He stated we should “ screw it and just kneel in the middle of the street.” Of course, I loved the imagery of this and knew it would be a bold statement in the very white suburb where my clinic is located. However, the “living while Black in America” part of my brain defaulted to “I am not trying to get arrested” immediately. I expressed this concern, and he mentioned that he had cared for some of the police officers in the community before stepping down from his clinical practice. I read between the lines that this was an extra layer of protection against any possible negative consequences. A privilege that I could only wish I had.
We ended up picking up a “safer” option centered in the clinic parking lot, and I gathered everyone to take a knee promptly at 10 a.m. I set out an empty chair, with a candle votive and happy birthday sign in honor of Breonna Taylor, and we all took a collective knee.
My director kneeled next to me. During the ten minutes, he recognized many people — all white — who passed by. They honked, waived, or said words of encouragement while going about their business. We remained silent, but the support of those who walked by was loud and clear.
I could not help but wonder if I — a very obviously Black woman in a white coat — was out there kneeling alone, would I get the same encouragement? I had similar thoughts the following day during the Healthcare workers for Justice March in Downtown Seattle. My close friend, a Black female, general surgeon, and activist, led the protest. Well over 7,000 people showed up in support of Black Lives Matters. I stood by my friend for the majority of the three-hour protest. I looked out to a sea of white ally faces. The support was amazing and energizing. I also noticed the police presence was pretty much nonexistent. I could not help but wonder if this would be the case if the crowd was filled with Black and brown faces.
The last story I will share centers on the hiring of a new physician at my clinic. When interviewing him around this very same time last year, he wore a Black Lives Matter pin on his badge. This immediately caught my eye. I asked him about the pin during the interview. He shared a story about what inspired him to wear it. He then added that he could possibly get one for me. I remembered thinking in my head, “Yeah, I can see my Press Ganey scores tanking as my predominantly white patient panel tags me as militant for wearing said pin.” As a white male, this probably never even crossed his mind. I recall smiling and changing the topic.
Fast forward to the present. The Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage across the nation. I openly support the Black Lives Matter movement at work, and I no longer worry about what my patients think.
The ability to protest and support the Black Lives Matter movement while white is a privilege. White protestors do not have to bear the double-edged sword of protesting while trying to navigate the oppressions placed upon them by the very system they are protesting against. That was a lot to digest, right? That is my whole point. Add being a full-time family physician and a wife to a Black husband and mother to a Black son and daughter on top of that. It is exhausting. Allies, I commend those of you who acknowledge your privilege. I also wanted to shed light on this extra layer afforded to allies. Let us acknowledge it and address it as we continue to demand a more just world in solidarity for Black lives.
Margaret Towolawi is a family physician.
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