Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved with various institutional organizations, programs, and initiatives that focus on some sort of inequity or disadvantage. I’ve attended an SNMA (Student National Medical Association) regional conference, meetings for social activism, meetings for groups that work with disadvantaged high-schoolers, diversity committee meetings, talks about race related health disparities, and other related functions. Because the perception of my story is one of overcoming seemingly insurmountable adversity, my classmates tend to approach me regarding social justice issues. I think my classmates know that I am extremely passionate about issues of race, class, and gender related disparities, both in health and in other areas (e.g. education). They are probably also correct to believe that my background afforded me a unique set of experiences that ostensibly prime me for a career in that field. Further, they are correct in their belief that these issues are very personal to me because they directly affect those closest to me. Although they are certainly correct about these issues, I think many fail to appreciate the nuances in the mechanisms that underlie systems of privilege and how those may have directed my course.
My classmates and others tend to view me as a person who was extremely disadvantaged and underprivileged—a person who had next to nothing going for him. That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, I am, and have always been, a very privileged person. First and foremost, I was born in a country where there is some mechanism for class mobility, albeit a pretty ineffective one. Not unlike President Obama, I am widely accepted as “black,” but I am in fact half “white,” which affords me some level of unfair societal advantage. Yes, I was born poor, but to a strong mother who did not succumb to the pressures of poverty; she was not drug addicted, abusive, or willing to give up on her children. I had a stable father figure in my house; he entered my life when I was very young and did not leave until he passed a few years ago. I lived in a household that obeyed the law, enforced personal responsibility, and essentially created a home environment that would allow its progeny to prosper. I would often be told to “look outside.” “What you see is not normal. This is not how we want you to live.” My parents managed to do this even though they both worked very long hours. I never wondered whether my parents cared for me. I never wondered if I would eat the next day. I never wondered if we would have heat in the winter. (Despite having heat, our very old house was so poorly insulated that we had to cover all windows with sheet upon sheet of heavy plastic.) My parents essentially created a positive microenvironment (that was not unlike those of the most privileged) in the midst of an extremely destructive macroenvironment. It is no coincidence that none of my siblings have turned to crime, illicit drugs, or other deviant behavior. In fact, we have all done very well, and my younger sister even graduated college with a 4.0 GPA as well (before I did). There was certainly something special about what my parents did in that little house on Hazelton St. Were people murdered, mugged, and jumped on a regular basis in my neighborhood? Yes. Were drugs and gangs out of control? Yes. Have I heard my fair share of gun shots and bullets whizzing? Yes. But, my mom and step-dad did their best to protect us from that horror.
When I reflect on these things, I have mixed emotions about the impact that my story could have. On one hand, I feel compelled to share my story with kids that are growing up in neighborhoods like mine. Perhaps I can be a symbol of hope for a few kids that would otherwise feel hopeless. I might even be an effective mentor to people who will come after me and who have encountered similar obstacles. On the other hand, I feel danger because the things that privileged me aren’t necessarily easy to measure. How would one measure the effectiveness of parenting in those who managed to defy the statistics? How can someone who has felt extreme pressure to turn to a life of crime be compared to me and my comparatively low pressure situation? I never felt desperate for food, shelter, or other basic needs. So, I often wonder if someone will pervert my story (and similar stories) in order to make the claim that the American Dream is truly tangible for all people and that there aren’t true social mobility issues? Will someone tout me as proof that these issues of virtuously ubiquitous race-related disparity are fallacious? Will people say that I had it just as bad as anyone else? The fact is that people often use the exception to the rule as evidence that the rule doesn’t actually exist. Examples of outliers can be used to champion initiatives that will continue to widen the gap of disparity, and I hope I am never one of those exceptions.
I’ve said all of that to say this:
We are culture of people who are in love with our own hard work and laurels. However, as individuals, we must acknowledge the privileges and unfair advantages that were integral to our various achievements. We’ve all encountered hardship, but not at the level of the people who continue to see generation after generation go to prison and die at the hands of others. Yes, young disadvantaged kids can achieve their dreams, BUT it takes a person or people to intervene when at critical stages of development. That could be a parent, a school teacher, a physician, or a lowly first-year medical student. I urge everyone, if you are in a position to do so, to help change the life of just one child. I’m living proof that it makes a world of difference. Get involved. Stay involved. You can save someone’s life!