The small steps to ensure everyone experiences dignity

There were about nine of us waiting to cross the street. Several were Asian; there were also a few black and brown men.

A van approached the curb to turn. It was one of those vans with a back door that slides along a track. That back door was wide open, even though the van was in motion. As it pulled closer, we saw that there were three young white men seated in the back. They were wearing shorts and sunglasses. Their legs were spread wide, occupying the space with confidence.

The young white man seated closest to the open door called at us as the van passed:

“… ching ching ching chong ting ting tong tong …”

The man of color next to me swiftly raised his arm and made a gesture with his hand. The young men in the van saw this gesture and shouted their musical slurs in a higher pitch in response.

“What? That still happens? Are you kidding?” she exclaimed.

“Well, yeah,” I said, perplexed. “The last time this happened to us was about three or four months ago.”

“But we’re in Seattle. And there are so many Asians here, on the West Coast. This really happened to you?”

These are probably the same people who see the color of your skin and say terrible things to you, I thought. Why are you surprised?

He and I had never met. He knew that I was conducting a clinical interview with someone else, but kept talking at me, anyway:

“… stupid f_cking whore, that’s what you are, you think you’re better just because you’re in a white coat, but you’re a f_cking whore, a c_nt, you should go finger f_ck yourself and die, you stupid f_cking whore …”

Sometimes, I can’t help but laugh with amusement at the racism and sexism lobbed at me. Like that one time, I was eating an egg custard in Chinatown in New York City. I was leaning against a brick wall, enjoying an afternoon treat; Asians of all shapes, sizes, and ages walked past me. A non-Asian man saw me from across the street, stopped, and shouted, “CHINK!” before resuming his stroll.

… but… but … you know we’re in Chinatown, right …?

Other times, like this most recent instance of the open van, I feel more troubled. I wasn’t fearful for my safety when the van sped past, though I was aware how things could escalate. I wasn’t going to stop doing my work when the man insisted I am a “f_cking whore,” though I wondered if others agreed with him, but just kept silent.

It’s toxic and it’s tiring.

People want and deserve a basic level of dignity. It doesn’t cost anything to be civil, to be humane. Why some people sacrifice humanity and civility to assert higher status, I don’t know.

Would these young men in the van have sang their racial slurs at me if they knew I spoke perfect American English? What if they learned I am trained as a physician? What if they learned I work in a jail and helped out someone they knew? What if they found out I like the same cookies they do?

Would the man who insisted that I am a “f_cking whore” have cared if I was able to help address his health concerns? What if I interacted with him in a way that was better than his past experiences with people in white coats? What if he and I shared the same concerns about the rising rents and gentrification in Seattle?

When groups of people — complex, complicated, multifaceted humans with thoughts, hopes, talents, and dreams — are reduced to a single trait, it’s easy to denigrate and dismiss them.

When our nation has an elected leader who reduces groups of people to a single trait — “rapists,” “[they] all have AIDS,” “grab them by the pussy” — then other ignoble acts don’t seem so bad. To be clear, indecency and baseness obviously existed before the current President. The expectation for public discourse, though, is now at a different set point.

Is it really that bad when someone repeatedly says “Konnichiwa!” to you in a sing-songy voice, even after you tell that person that you’re not Japanese? I mean, it’s not like that person was trying to ban all people of the Islamic faith from entering the United States.

Is it really that bad when someone says, “Wow, you speak English really well!” upon meeting you? That seems like nothing when the President got on stage and mocked a citizen with a congenital condition.

A close friend of mine provided counsel to me many years ago when I expressed distress to him about a personal issue.

“You don’t have to work on this problem every single day,” he said. “It’s a complicated problem that does not have an easy solution. It’s OK to take a break. It’s not like anyone can solve this problem quickly.”

When we grow weary from complicated problems like racism, sexism, incivility, and dehumanization, we must remember that it is OK to take a break. Not an indefinite break, but a break. It’s not going to make an enormous difference if you take a week off from fighting racism; that’s been going on for centuries. Stepping away from your efforts to stop dehumanization for a little bit doesn’t mean you’re weak; it just means you can rest and recuperate so you can sustain this work for the upcoming years.

Things often don’t change as fast as we want them to, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t change. We must maintain our own abilities and willingness to show humanity, civility, and kindness to ourselves and others. Only when we do that can we hope and work to ensure that everyone experiences dignity.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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