In his graduation speech at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a thought-provoking speech that rings true in today’s hostile climate. Wallace began with a story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
As humans, we experience life through a lens that is unique to ourselves. We spend most of our life in “default setting” and rarely look outside of our natural inclinations to view the world. The way we are raised and our experiences shape this unique lens through which we see reality.
As a White male, there are certain things that I will never understand. I was raised in an upper-middle-class family in a safe neighborhood — one with adequate resources, education and funding. I have never had to live in fear in my community, worry about my safety on my street, or been threatened or condemned because of how I look. My reality is inexplicably shaped by the privilege and opportunities that I have been given. I realize that to me, racism appears nonexistent because I have not seen it.
But while I have my reality, I, ashamedly, am just beginning to recognize that there are many others who are experiencing life in a dichotomous way. There are some who, because of the color of their skin and the neighborhood they were raised in, have to spend their lives living in fear. Fear of walking on the street. Fear of driving their car. Fear of looking at someone the wrong way.
A few months after receiving my driver’s license, I was pulled over by a police officer on my way home from a friend’s house for going 14 miles per hour over the speed limit. Not only was I speeding, but it was almost two hours past the Michigan curfew set for new drivers. After spending a few moments talking with the police officer, he told me that for breaking those laws, this incident could go on my public record, and I could have my driver’s license revoked for more than a year. To my surprise, however, the officer then told me that while he could enforce the law, he was going to let me go as long as I promised to go straight home and tell my parents what had happened.
I have reflected on this experience many times throughout my life. I had previously rationalized the situation by believing that I had either simply gotten lucky or said the right things during my conversation with the officer. It was not until the national discussions that are developing currently, however, that I began to wonder what would have happened that night if I was in a low-income neighborhood and had a higher concentration of melanin in my skin.
For those of us that do not visibly experience racism, it is so easy to live life in our default setting and ignore the realities that are clear to many around us. This cannot continue. We must find moments to reflect on what we otherwise have a difficult time understanding. Realities like racism that we don’t immediately recognize are the hardest to admit and discuss, but they are also pivotal for us to grow as a society that respects and honors all people, regardless of skin color.
While the water I swim in may lead me to think that racism is a thing of the past, I must begin to educate myself on how the inequalities of the past seep into the reality of today. I need to continue to realize that because my family wasn’t a victim of mortgage discrimination and pushed to live in certain neighborhoods due to redlining, I have benefited. I need to remind myself that even down to the care my mother received when I was in her womb, I have benefited from the color of my skin.
As future physicians, we take an oath to “do no harm,” but if we remain complacent in issues that unquestionably affect the health and wellness of others then we are not staying true to that promise. While this is a complex problem that will take time and hard work to fix, medical students and physicians must first recognize that there even is a problem and that it needs to be discussed early and often.
While we can’t change everyone or everything (at least not all at once), we can start by working to shed light on the inequalities seen in the healthcare system. We can improve our medical education system to include lessons on the systemic racism seen throughout the United States so that it doesn’t take a countrywide revolution for us to recognize the water that is all around us.
As I continue to reflect on my privilege and uncover what is not immediately evident to my eyes, I challenge you to do so as well. Zeno, a Greek philosopher, once said, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Let us all strive to realize that we are not the center of the universe, that we are merely a drop in the ocean of humanity. A humanity that is not inherently divided by skin color, but is united as one human race. Let us think about those whose reality may be starkly different from our own, and let us continue to remind ourselves that “this is water.”