Recently, I had my first experience serving as the supervising attending at The Sharewood Project, a free clinic that serves mostly immigrant families and those that have no insurance. In addition to medical students, we have dental residents, dermatology residents, interpreters and case workers. We come together like this once a week to give struggling families a real shot at success.
Many of the patients that night were young children, often with non-English speaking parents. They giggled as aspiring doctors did abdominal exams while tickling their bellies and checked lung sounds by telling them to blow out air as if they were blowing out a candle. We saw healthy kids, underweight kids, kids of color, kids with lice, and kids who had their first girlfriend or boyfriend. We also saw happy parents, sad parents and anxious parents. But what we saw consistently were families doing their best for their children.
Shortly after I left for the evening, I was pulled over by the police. I had missed a turn. In an effort to go the opposite way, I pulled into Malden Station, passed the orange line, and went into the “buses only” lane. I was surprised when I saw the flashing lights behind me, but I took out my license along with my registration and waited for the officer. The officer told me what I had done wrong and I genuinely apologized because I didn’t realize that being in that lane was considered a cause for a fine.
He was kind to me but questioned why I had a Pennsylvania driver’s license with Massachusetts plates. I explained to him that my insurance company told me I didn’t need one because I arrived in Boston for educational training and thought I would be here temporarily. The officer asked me for further identification to prove that I was in training or a student of some kind. I showed him ID cards for both the hospital where I work and the medical school where I teach. On the cards was written “Physician.” The police officer’s tone and body language suddenly changed. He addressed me by “Doctor” and “Ma’am”. He let me go without a fine and held traffic so that my car could merge back onto the street.
As I merged back into traffic, I felt an uneasiness; a feeling I’ve been experiencing more and more recently. I reflected on what if I was person of color who was also a physician? What if I looked like one of my patients? What if I was one of those anxious parents I saw that night with their sweet children in the backseat of my car? Would I have been treated the same? Would I have been asked to step outside the car? Frisked? Detained? Been threatened with a gun or taser in my face?
With the events that are happening within our own country, I have wanted to hide in a hole. Because when I think about my experience, I realize that the discomfort I felt in my chest was my privilege. I am clearly ashamed of it. I don’t think I ever paid attention to how it affects those around me until I was given the opportunity to work with patients that society has written off, targeted, and labeled.
I’m proud of everything I have accomplished professionally, and I wear my ID badge with pride. But when my privilege affects the treatment of others who deserve to be treated fairly, spoken to kindly, and respected regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigration status, then that privilege seems unfairly distributed, and it makes me want no part in it.
Hidden amidst these patients, or the ones I see everyday in clinic, are current and future doctors, educators, writers, painters, engineers and mathematicians. Hidden among them are kind, giving and loving parents that are doing the best they can for their children. And yet, there is no consideration given to their “privilege.’’ They are not called “Sir” or “Ma’am,” and no one stops traffic to let them pass. Making a simple mistake or even doing the right thing can end with them separated from their children, detained and often prosecuted for false crimes.
And so, when I think about what I witnessed, both at The Sharewood Project, and with the police, an uncomfortable feeling comes over me, a feeling that makes my privilege trivial and almost disconcerting. If others that have worked as hard or even harder than me, and for those that seek a better life for their children and sacrifice for their families; if they can’t be treated with the same respect and privilege I was privy to, then I want no part of it.
Because 38 years ago, my parents came to this country with nothing in their hands but a desperation to build a better life for their children. They were treated mildly better than what I am seeing in the news today, but were still given the opportunity to start over. They did everything they could to get ahead, in the same way the immigrants that are seeking asylum or trying to enter the country lawfully are trying to do. Very few people, citizens and politicians, are not looking at the privilege they deserve, or paying attention to the rights they are entitled to. Very few people are not seeing the innocence in the children I saw that night, and are ignoring the trauma these families are facing or will face when they are, hopefully, reunited. People are arguing endlessly, without a solution, and lacking the insight to see the parents’ desperation for a better life. They aren’t seeing the potential that these parents have to not only keep their families together and take our country forward, but to be respected for who they truly are.
We have forgotten, I believe, that their privilege matters too.