I walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota this evening, and it is packed with people. People grieving, people chatting, people holding one another, people holding banners and people giving speeches. July 7, 2016: a black man named Philandro Castile had been killed barely twenty-four hours ago by a police officer. As I got closer, I heard the familiar chant based on the quote from Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
It’s a chant I’ve grown familiar with during my final year of living in St. Louis, Missouri: 2015 to 2016, the same year that Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. Is it wrong to find this chant familiar and comforting — that I have said it so many times, it could be a nursery rhyme? A thought crosses my mind: how strange that these brutal killings have been following me to the cities I call home. And then, I stop and think about what privilege I have to think these murders have been following me, because my skin is not black and I’ve only just noticed. These murders have been happening long before I was born, but my eyes have only just been opened.
When I attended protests in St. Louis and Ferguson, it was as an undergraduate student. The first thing I did was look around for people who look like me: Asians, black hair, yellow skin. And when I did see them, perhaps made eye contact, I wondered if they thought of me as curiously as I thought of them. What does it mean that you’re here? That I’m here? That we’re here and that we see each other? And do other people see us here, too? And where is everyone else who looks like us — why are they not here?
It took me a long year to understand who I was as an Asian-American activist and ally. A lot of reflection was provoked by Peter Liang’s shooting of Akai Gurley, and this Chinese-American officer being the only police officer to have been charged with a crime for killing a black man. And now there are claims that Castile was shot by a Chinese officer, and I worry and consider the privilege and burden of my not-white skin. But, I’ve found people who look like me at this protest, and I’ve become comfortable in my own skin, speaking from my identity. I can write a great deal about my Asian-American activism, but that’s not what I am thinking of at this moment.
Since starting medical school, I’ve put on a second skin, as we all do when we don our white coats and swear by the Hippocratic oath. Because as much as medical schools are about diversity and inclusion these days, the culture of medicine invariable requires you to put aside your personal identities and politics for a supposedly objective, impartial frame of mind. White coat: clean white slate, blank and pure and unbiased. Science precludes personal identity because identity is messy, individual and everything for which the scientific method cannot account. We, the people of color, don our white coats and erase the ways our skins have colored our views of the world — for the sake of science. So, when I do go out to protests now — in the rare cases when I dare take the time — I look for those that also wear this second skin, but often in vain. Because none of us, myself included, wears our white coat to public protests on the streets. Perhaps for fear of their being stained, literally and figuratively. Last fall, when students at my medical school organized a silent protest as part of the national #WhiteCoats4BlackLives day of action, #ActionsSpeakLouder, we received an email from a student asking us to cover the university’s emblem in our photos. If we must protest as health professionals, the message implied, then at least don’t let people see it’s connected to my university, because that would be an embarrassment. This message came to us despite the fact that our university administrators supported our silent protest.
I feel lucky for our administrators’ support, knowing that many professional student activists do not feel supported by their academic institutions. Even if an institution does not actively condemn protests and organizing, the lack of support is discouraging. We see our physician mentors wax poetic about their scientific pursuits, but we rarely hear about them expressing political passions and idealism for radically better health care. Surely, they must’ve once felt as we do now, fired up and thirsty for change? How can it be that we have so few physician role models to teach us how to participate in racial justice activism?
I’ve spoken with fellow medical students about their frustrations against activism on the streets. First is almost always the practical, that protest is a limited method of getting things done. And, let me say, I do hear you: while protests can create enormous, beautiful change, they only do so much and for only so long. The long haul is not about the protest itself, but more profoundly about how we as observers listen and reflect on how the protest message impacts us. Many of you fellow students and professionals see that there is injustice in how Philandro Castile was killed, but our thinking must not stop there. Locking up the officer who killed Philandro Castile will not prevent another black body dying at the hands of another officer. Diversifying the police force will not prevent police officers from destroying communities of color because this officer was identified early on as an officer of color. The problem is bigger than this incident and this moment, and we need to take up that bigger responsibility. We must ask: what and where are our tools to create the change necessary for these deaths and this injustice to stop? If action stops with the protest, then how much can be attributed to the protest itself as a failed endeavor, and how much can be attributed to our failure to listen?
And then there’s the idea of compassion fatigue: that if physicians are human, and humans have a limited capacity for empathy, then surely we’re doomed to run dry before anyone else, if we are looking forward to a lifetime of confronting illness, disability and death. Wringing our hands about every police shooting death, every civilian bombing, every mass shooting, is only pointless self-castigation. I admit that I’ve also become exhausted of hearing and reading about more and more death, every day, around the globe — predominantly inflicted on marginalized people who do not have the means to build a wall between themselves and violence. But, history tells us that medicine does not simply look away when the death count has become too high to comprehend. Death provoked our predecessors to look for answers and understand why.
If violence were a microbe, we would have, by now, identified its genus and species and possible subspecies. We would have long ago identified its million genetic relatives. But the reality is that the Center for Disease Control can’t even initiate research on gun violence. I can’t imagine what backlash there would be if we had to add power and privilege into the mix. What I want you to understand is that studying violence is not scientifically impossible, but the status quo keeps it this way, and we must resist that.
Finally, I’ve heard people critique protest as an inappropriate means of expression. If you’re angry, the appropriate response is to go and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, write a letter to your senator, instead of disrupting public traffic. Protest is too violent, too loud and demands too many impossible things. It occurred to me that we are told similar things about how to grieve appropriately as medical professionals — that grieving must be done quietly, behind closed doors and curtains and it must not inconvenience anyone. Our profession has had to confront itself more and more about such superhuman expectations of always keeping our emotions under lock, and our unwillingness to witness each other’s traumas in patient care. Perhaps, we struggle to listen to protest because physicians hold ourselves to such unrealistic standards that we expect such professionalism out of everyone around us. Perhaps, we struggle to listen also because such direct vocalization of injustice — particularly of the injustice that we partake in and which is protected by our privileged institutions — makes us uncomfortable. But in these truly difficult times, we must at the very least understand protest as a legitimate means of grieving. It is a cry for others to witness grief, especially when those in power refuse to listen, refuse to hear. We know that even in hospitals, the pain of black bodies is viewed as less legitimate relative to white bodies — no wonder then, that people are taking to the streets.
I won’t pretend to have many — if any — answers. Perhaps it’s even arrogant to imagine that medicine has many realistic solutions for violence, racism or oppression. But at the very least, we can allow communities to grief without criticism or questioning — in black communities and the communities of the Dallas police officers. And, I wish this didn’t need saying, but, we can and should absolutely demand justice for black lives as well as police officers’ lives, because justice means healing, not revenge. We can shut off our computers, go out into our streets and witness a fellow human’s pain, but also witness their hopes for a better life and a safer, freer world. We can let this witnessing exhaust us, but pick ourselves back up again and go to our work of healing. Because we in medicine have a special responsibility to that.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug…
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
– Hippocratic Oath, Modern Version, 1964