I knew when I said goodbye to my dad that it would be the last time I saw him.
My dad was a fourth generation Chinese-American who grew up in Oakland, California. In many ways he had a hard life; he experienced significant hatred and racism. He was even blocked from joining the Boy Scouts because of his ethnicity. So instead, he dedicated himself to working really hard at his passions so that eventually he was better than everyone else. For example, he worked out until he was the strongest guy, so that no one would pick on him and beat him up. This mindset became ingrained in him and he instilled it in me and my sisters, too. He was born in 1938, and was 50 when I was born. Despite being older, he was a master at many things and very active; a modern dancer, owner of the Mel Wong Dance Company, a professor and artist. When we were younger, my father would say things like, ‘if daddy dies, you need to do well in school, get straight A’s, make money and don’t fight with your sisters’. My mom also encouraged us to be financially independent, and specifically, to never depend on a man.
I was raised in a spiritual household. My father had an extraterrestrial experience when he was younger. He was awoken in the middle of the night by a bright light and surrounded by incredibly powerful energy. A voice told him that if he came to the window he’d possess great powers, but he was too frozen in fear to move. From then on, he would feature symbols of the afterlife and the cosmos in his artwork. He was also deeply interested in Buddhism and practiced daily meditation. All of this culminated in his dancing, where he’d incorporate the energies of a higher power flowing through him. After he died, my mom became even more spiritual and in touch with the non-physical world. She’s always been a proponent of mind, body and spirit and the belief that your thoughts can create your reality. Ultimately, this means that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s something tragic like losing a loved one.
I never suspected my dad would have a heart attack, but I believe that both him and I sensed it was coming. I was 13 when he dropped me off at a friend’s house for a sleepover. I recall getting out of the car and realizing that I hadn’t kissed Daddy on the cheek, which is something in that moment I told myself I should always do. For whatever reason I was compelled to walk back out in the road and I watched his car drive off. He died the next day.
After my dad’s death, I did everything I could to numb my grief. I partied endlessly throughout high school, nearly every night. It wasn’t until I entered college, and my body was covered in eczema from all of my suppressed emotions, that I took a break from partying. By that point I had been diagnosed with ADHD and began taking adderall. The combination of my upbringing, the adderall and my desire to be self sufficient drove me to cut everything out of my life that wouldn’t help me accomplish the latter.
I pursued an engineering degree, not because I loved it, but because I knew that it would enable me to have a stable financial future. I worked endlessly to be the best in my class and joined a prestigious general contracting firm upon graduation. While I have a lot of respect for the firm, construction culture meant that I was working 14 hour days on average and I never had weekends for myself. I kept my head down and shut out everything that was creative and restorative until I became fully disconnected, ultimately losing my true identity.
Then, in 2019, I lost my best friend Jenny. We both grew up in Santa Cruz and despite being older than me, she joined her younger brother and I at Cal Poly for engineering, a couple years after us. Growing up in a family of engineers, engineering was second nature, but she was always curious about what else was out there. Together we would dream up what else we could do instead of engineering and construction. She had so much energy and enthusiasm about her -- some of the characteristics that I loved most.
Always being one for adventures, my friend went ice climbing one day with another friend in Mammoth Lakes. While climbing, there was a rockfall that killed both of them instantly. Losing her was such a shock and I still hadn’t fully grieved for my father. I struggled to exercise, gained weight and slipped further into misery at my profession. After a while, I realized that I loathed what I was doing. I had spent over 10 years suppressing my creativity, working around the clock, only putting my job first, missing out on times with loved ones and if I kept going down that path, I would lose myself for good. Although I had worked so hard to get to where I was in my career, was perceived as very successful from the outside eye, and although it was beyond terrifying to make a change, it was time for me to start a new chapter.
Since college physics, I’ve come to embrace the law of conservation of energy in regards to what happens when you die. The law states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only converted from one form of energy to another. Thus, those who die are still all around us, you just have to pay attention. It wasn’t until my best friend’s death that I really tuned in. I remember being so upset about her death and then all of a sudden this hummingbird flew by me and landed on a telephone wire to sit with me. Each day it would come back and sit with me through my grief and I knew it was her. It took me years before I could connect with my dad, likely because I’d spent so much time shutting out my sadness and trying to ignore it.
My mom would always talk about signs she noticed from my dad, and I even had witnessed them while visiting my childhood home, but never on my own. I’ll never forget the first time that I connected with him by myself. I was talking to my mentor about quitting my job and leaving the construction industry. Something landed on my hand, so I flicked it off without looking. Glancing over, I saw a grasshopper sitting next to me. I went to walk inside and froze. I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘is that a sign from dad?’ So, I went back outside and the grasshopper just sat next to me throughout the entire call.
When I went inside I rushed to look up what the grasshopper symbolizes. In addition to luck and prosperity, the grasshopper signifies only moving forward. It felt like my dad was giving me permission to move forward and leave my job behind. Even recently, my mom, husband and I were closing on the purchase of a cabin. While we were signing the papers, we heard this loud boom at the window. On the window we saw a giant grasshopper. Once again, my dad was saying hello and sharing his excitement to keep moving forward.
The most connected I’ve ever felt to those who have died was when I was close to experiencing my own death. In the fall of 2020, I went backpacking with my husband. As we drove up the mountain, we saw a mama bear and her cubs sprint across the road. The mama just stopped and stared at us in a way that told me something was wrong, but we kept driving. Upon reaching the trailhead, we realized that a fire had ignited nearby. Little did we know then, that this would be one of the top four largest recorded fires in California history--the Creek Fire.
By 3PM it was pitch black and we learned later that we were in the middle of a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm, which can be created by wildfires. We went to a field to see beyond the smoke and ash. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a hawk came out of the smoke and dove straight down towards us. When it was almost right in front of us it veered away to watch us from a tree. It was jarring and I felt like it was telling us to leave. I thought it might be a sign from my late best friend. Just before we saw the hawk, my husband had seen a large brown animal through the trees. He went to investigate after the hawk encounter to find a big doe--this was a sign from our late dog Stella. As we headed back to the trail, we saw smoke in the distance, but once we got to our car, we thought we were safe. However, once we headed down the mountain, we ran into a caravan of cars who waved us down. A guy rolled down his window and said, “the fire has jumped the road, there are no operable roads out, we are trapped. The ranger said to go up.” Rather than entering fight or flight mode, I completely froze. I was so terrified that my body went into shock, trembling uncontrollably.
We began caravaning up the mountain to escape the fire. Once we reached the top everyone began coordinating, but I couldn’t even speak because I was so afraid. It hit me that we might not make it out and we could all die. You could see the flames licking the night sky through the trees. I asked my loved ones, those who had died, for guidance to get us out safely. Ironically, I’m not scared of death because I don’t believe life ends when you die. Instead, I was afraid of having my life cut short when there was still so much that I wanted to do. Thankfully, after three hours of off road maneuvering, running into a local who “thought” he might know a road out, taking a chance and driving through a river, we were able to escape and get off the mountain, away from the fire. The entire Fresno area had been evacuated, so we had to drive 2 more hours until we could find an available hotel.
The next day, my sister Kira, and her fiance came up from San Diego to be with us at home. As a network chiropractor at Twin Waves Wellness Center, my sister worked on me to help release all of the terror that was inside. Her body work helped me process everything and I ended up sobbing uncontrollably and screaming the most blood-curdling shriek as I let go. The process reshaped a horrific and harrowing experience into something beautiful. Afterward, we all had so much adrenaline that we jumped in the ocean, got mai tais and celebrated being alive and being together. That night, while we were on my deck looking at the stars, there was a big and beautiful shooting star that fell for what seemed like ages. With my dad’s love of the cosmos, I knew that it was the sign I had asked him for during the fire. My mind instantly jumped to this Enya song (the only artist that we both ever agreed upon) called “Fallen Embers”. I ran to look up the lyrics and they go like:
Once, as my heart remembers
All the stars were fallen embers
Once, when night seemed forever
I was with you
Once, in the care of morning
In the air was all belonging
Once, when that day was dawning
I was with you
How far we are from morning?
How far we are?
And the stars shining through the darkness
Falling in the air
Once, as the night was leaving
Into us, our dreams were weaving
Once, all dreams were worth keeping
I was with you
Once, when our hearts were singing
I was with you
The song completely mirrored my experience in the fire. As we listened to the song, almost every verse ending with, ‘I was with you’ I knew that was my dad telling me he was with me during the entire harrowing event. I was with all of the people who had passed on. The Creek Fire solidified two beliefs: your loved ones are watching over you and you only have one life to live. Don’t just put your head down and work, work, work just so that you have a big salary and material things--life is too short to be unhappy. Fill your heart up, connect, love, do what makes you happy and laugh endlessly.
About my dad, Mel Wong, choreographer and artist: Mel Wong 1938-2003 and Mel Wong, UCSC
My photos of the Creek Fire
My best friend Jenny's ice climbing story
My art and creative outlet @youngscollective
Network Spinal Analysis Chiropractic - Twin Waves Wellness Center
The Creek Fire
I grew up in an Afro-Latina household with a father who was in and out of the healthcare system. I was only four when he had a heart transplant and I remember having to say goodbye to him because we didn’t know if he would make it. He lived 10 more years until his sudden death when I was 14.
Growing up in the Bay Area, where the Latino community was predominantly Mexican-American or Central American, I didn’t see a lot of other people who looked like me. The novellas that my family watched didn’t feature any Afro-Latinas either. My mom is Mexican-American and I don't think she understood what it meant to have Black children or to have Black women growing up in the California Bay Area. My dad often emphasized that there were Latinos who looked like me, specifically Puerto Ricans and Columbians, but I didn’t have access to that community in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, my dad would also regularly remind us of what others would see when they looked at me and my sister. He’d say, ‘when you walk out that door you're a Black woman. You're a Black person and people are always going to have eyes on you’. I didn't realize how much of his teachings would prove true in my adult life and it’s been difficult to not be able to speak with him about it.
My dad faced a lot of issues that he never really talked about. He grew up in the Bay Area during a time when the Black Panther movement was huge, but he never joined. I only recently learned it was my grandmother that influenced his decision. This was told to me by my uncle who explained she was afraid for her children but never said it directly even though her kids knew. She was one of the Black people who came up from the South. Her generation experienced significant trauma and swept all of it under the rug. They never spoke of it. Instead, they’d button up and put their best foot forward at all times, regardless of how they might feel. Ultimately, this led to my dad having a lot of respectability politics, meaning he’d always ensure that he looked great when he went out because dressing up might make him less of a target. It’s this notion of respectability politics that tries to give a sense of safety to Black people. Even so, my dad still had run-ins with police officers. I didn’t know this until after he died but it’s clear that those moments impacted how he spoke and prepared his kids for the world.
Respectability politics and a lack of trust in systems meant that things weren’t openly talked about in my community, even if they were problematic. On top of that, I grew up in a household where you didn’t talk back. Instead you followed whatever the parents told you, particularly with my dad. I’m working on undoing this repression and it makes me think about the trauma that my dad must have been carrying around that he didn’t unpack. There are generations of trauma that are being held onto by Black people and people of color and it’s weaponized to keep us in line. There’s this notion that because we endured this, we need to continue on in this way. It leaves all of us in survival mode when actually we need space to unpack.
While I speak freely now, it took years of unlearning and making mistakes to get here. Ultimately, I had to hit a wall to realize that I had to change my ways. College was that breaking point. I went to college in Arizona because I was an 18 year old wanting to experience something outside the Bay Area and I experienced pure blank racism while there (it happens in the Bay Area too). I always felt like I had to wear a mask or put on a show. People would say underhanded comments but I would tell myself to let it go or shake it off. I’d never confront that person, or sometimes I would but it would be in a way more gentle way. I was far away from family and friends so I was stuck there and forced to navigate these experiences.
I studied teaching because it’s something that came naturally to me. I’ve always been around kids, starting with working at a church nursery when I was 12. I began noticing that some students that were considered difficult by others would end up with me because I figured out how to structure a learning environment that best fit them. In college I was on the ‘traditional’ track because I had to work my way through college, while other people were in practice groups where they were in the classroom full time. I think this had a huge impact on me trying to work, have a social life, and get through school. By my last year, I was going to drop out and not go into teaching. I lacked the support and motivation I needed in teaching in Arizona and was surrounded by people who directly conflicted with my values. One teacher, who was married to a police chief, would regularly say to her fifth graders that Black Lives Matter was a terrorist group. I recall her being really proud of one of her students when he turned off the classroom TV because LeBron James appeared on it wearing a shirt that read ‘I can’t breathe’.
My sister ultimately helped me get back on track. She’s also an educator (an incredibly accomplished one, too) and knew that the best way to encourage me would be to put me in the classroom. I spent my final spring break paired with one of the teachers at her school. I was hands on working with high school seniors and at the end they gave me feedback. One of them told me, ‘you’re cool but why do you come off not confident?’. I realized then that if high school students were telling me that I wasn’t confident, then things had to change. After graduating, I returned to the Bay Area where I was hired to teach Ethnic Studies. Diving into the materials forced me to really invest in myself and do some deep self reflection. After all, if I was asking kids to reflect on who they are, then I had to be the one to model it for them.
Something that I'm thinking about a lot right now is how I’m going to support students and advocate for parents. Only my mom went to college, but neither of my parents knew how to advocate for education. They knew that if you did certain things then you would succeed, but between 4 children, my mom working full time and my dad in and out of the hospital, they didn’t have the time to sit with us every day and read bedtime stories. My parents knew the importance of education and how it could help with getting a career.
Also, I leverage my role as an opportunity to fight systemic racism in education. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to provide students with skills to navigate our society. A critical part is identifying oppressive systems so students work around them. We currently have the highest rate of Black and Latino male students not graduating. It’s up to all of us educators to ensure that we catch those students and challenge the system that considers it acceptable to operate this way. We have to help them build enough confidence so that they go to school and successfully enter the workforce.
Still, there are many barriers that are beyond our control, like the pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic is helping educators realize that there are inequities. People have been saying this for years, but now others see it, too. As a colleague, I challenge my peers to act. Now that they’re realizing the inequities of the American education system, I’m encouraging them to take the next steps to ensure that students don’t fall through the gaps. For instance, I had students who were at a third grade reading level in tenth grade and we were reading The New Jim Crow. I wasn’t going to tell them that they couldn’t read that book and instead hand them a third grade reading level book. That’s not fair. It’s up to us to make sure that each student participates and to ensure that they have the tools for the next time they have to read a difficult hard text. To help students be successful I had the privilege working with a team of teachers that focused on different strategies. The school pushed our thinking about the different strategies to help support students.
The favorite buzzword in education is ‘equity’, ;anti-racist’, ‘Black educator’ even ‘woke’. As a teacher, it’s simple to look at your gradebook and say, who's failing my class and why? Or to ask yourself, why am I lowering standards to students at this moment in time? Too often, teachers give up on students by labeling them as incapable of learning a particular topic. Those students get left behind because no one is trying to create a scaffold or support for that student to succeed.
For parents, educators and everyone advocating for education – it’s not going to be fixed overnight. It's a really sad realization, but you can shift your approach to focus on the things that you can change. Ask yourself, what solutions can I play a part in? Each of us has a role to play in supporting students and enabling them to be the best that they can be.
Culturally Responsive Teaching by Zaretta Hammond
Identity Safe Classrooms by Becki Cohn-Vargas
Is it Time for All Students to Take Ethnic Studies? by Lindsay McKenzie
I am a creator. I’ve been electrified by the sight of a blank canvas or an empty dance floor since I was a child. Nothing could ever keep my attention like a pile of old wood scraps or a lump of clay. I’ve always had the knack for never quite being able to see things at their market price. Even trash could be assembled somehow into jewels. I saw art in everything. I saw value in everything. Except for myself.
Not much was more grotesque to me than my own reflection, actually. My body was the one piece of trash I could never seem to make any better. Disgusting. Hopeless. Shameful. Worthless.
My mom was born in the fifties. She and many women in her generation were born thinking their major purpose in life was to be thin. That if they were fat, it was a problem to be solved. That fatness was the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone. It was natural to make fun of fat people, mercilessly, because they deserved it. Especially if the fat person was you. You were made to hide your shameful fat body until such a time you could make it smaller, more presentable to society. And if you never got thin enough? Well, that’s your fault, and your failure makes you a bad person deserving of less respect than thin people. That’s just the way it was. The way it is.
My mom died four years ago, when I was 26. She didn’t have a will to live the last five years of her life. Maybe more. She told me she didn’t think she deserved a good life. She died hating her body.
My generation drank that same sad poison. I remember being 7 years old and trying to figure out how to diet. I tried to get my hands on SlimFast. There were years I just never ate at family parties. Somebody like me didn’t deserve to eat. Of course not. Not in front of people. In high school I expertly disguised the shame I felt eating anything at all as simply - diets. I was a cheerleader and a dancer and had coaches who told us to eat only 1,200 calories a day to lose weight. For our health, of course. Around this time I became particularly fascinated by calorie counting. Improving my life was simple math! Input, output. If I avoided a certain number of calories per day, I could finally be thin. I tried not eating past 7pm. I bought Lean Cuisines. I counted almonds before I ate them. I weighed spinach. I weighed myself. I pretended I hated breakfast so I didn’t have to eat it. I would say I was too busy to pack a lunch for school. I’d beg, borrow and steal at lunch break because of course, I’d be hungry. Very hungry. But hunger was the ultimate sign of success. When I was hungry, I was worthy. When nobody was watching though, especially at night, food would go missing. In large amounts. It felt like I could only eat what I actually wanted in the dark.
And when I lost weight, everybody was so proud of me. We didn’t know I had an eating disorder.
Nobody questioned my tactics. I don’t remember one adult, caretaker, or doctor saying anything remotely negative about my weight loss. Only my weight gain. Family, friends, strangers, children, every single person I interacted with was much nicer to me when I was thin. It was intoxicating to be congratulated by the people I knew, and it felt incredible when doors were suddenly held open for me by people I didn’t know at all.
I chased that feeling for years. I wondered how people would treat me if I gained weight again. The compulsion to restrict calories crossed my mind every time I passed a mirror or window. In college I was introduced to alcohol. I felt just as out of control with it as I did with food. Both were socially acceptable to abuse. I was constantly stressed out and anxious. Going to the gym made my anxiety worse. But I always went back. I could not get fat. I picked up a dance minor. The professors said we could try drinking water if we were hungry. All the other dancers were thinner than me. I couldn’t break into their secret thin/blonde/ballet-trained-perfect-technician’s club even after 3 years. They didn’t even seem to like the club that much even if they were in it. The only thing dancers hated more than each other were their bodies. Our bodies. I always thought about my weight. Some days I thought as much about my weight as I did about how everyone would probably be fine if I just wasn’t alive anymore.
A few years after I graduated college is when my mom died. It felt like my body had run out of electricity. The entire world didn’t have color anymore. I quit dancing. My boyfriend of three years broke up with me. My grieving made me unlovable. I developed OCD and had panic attacks where my brain was convinced I was dying. I couldn’t fall asleep. My psychiatrist slut shamed me for not being able to remember the names of the many guys I dated. I restricted more calories than ever before. I isolated myself from my friends and family so I didn’t have to burden them with the byproducts of my grief. I became better at lying each time they’d ask me the hardest question of all, “How are you doing?”
The twisted thing about grief is that she never quite leaves you. She breaks you like a glass vase thrown against a wall. She lights the broken pieces of you on fire and pounds your unrecognizable bits into the ground. But she stays there on the ground with you when she’s done. She waits and waits for you to put your pieces back into a shape only barely passing for your old self and then, miraculously, acts as a kind of glue to keep you all together.
My grief changed me forever. She simultaneously is the heaviest and lightest thing I have ever carried. Today, I cannot imagine myself without her. Although I wish, desperately, that nobody on earth would ever have to feel the pain of losing their mother ever again for the rest of human history, the loss shifted my perspective about not only myself and my body, but everyone’s bodies in a big way. It took years after we lost mom, but, get this, I love myself now. If mom were here today, I’d tell her she walked so I could run. My body is worthy because her body was worthy, as is every single person’s body that ever was. Every single day I live in this body and thrive is for her. I'm a big girl, I always was, and I always will be. I'm so proud of this big fat body. I will shout about my love for this vessel no matter how it changes (and it will), because every corner of it is dazzling no matter what the fuck it looks like. Why? Because I am alive.
I’ve never been happier than I am now that I can look in the mirror and love what I see. I am so beautiful. It’s sometimes overwhelming how powerful and gorgeous I feel. It hasn’t been easy to get here, and fighting diet culture is a job I’ll dutifully have to perform, on purpose, aggressively, for the rest of my life. But I am glad to no longer question that the rest of my life should be a pretty long time. There are days, of course, when my guards are down and an Instagram ad for appetite suppressing lollipops breaks me for a second. Or days like today, as I sit here and write this on Mother’s Day and I’m feeling low, so it crosses my mind to restrict calories to make myself feel better, more in control of an outcome. But luckily, these days those fleeting thoughts are just that - fleeting. Shooting stars in a vast sky full of significantly more incredible, stable burning balls of light. And me? I’m the sun.
And dance? It’s actually my weapon against body hatred. Not just for myself, either. I teach dance now! I know, I can’t believe it either. My dancers won’t hear me tell them to lose weight. Not even to fit into a costume. Not implicitly, not explicitly, not ever. I try to create a room where we can move and celebrate our bodies, and where there isn’t a hierarchy based on who has had the most ballet training. Whether the kids in my class continue on to become professional dancers or not, if they leave my class feeling better and not worse about themselves, I have done my job. I don’t care if they can do a quadruple pirouette. I want them to do a quadruple-take at themselves when they see how stunning they are inside and out. Therein lies the change I want to see in the world. The revolution against diet culture is achieved through just a few tiny paradigm shifts in the minds of teenagers each day.
There's tons of women, tons of people, who at this moment are sitting in their corner of the world and not doing the things they love because they think they're too this, too that, too big, too short, whatever. Life is literally, and not figuratively, too short to not do what you want, and to not believe that you’re fabulous. If there's anything I know for sure it's that the good times don't last forever, but the bad times don’t last forever either. You’ll lose and gain people and weight in your life. If there’s anything that I know for sure remains constant, it’s the fact that you’re beautiful no matter what happens. You. I mean you. This is the objective truth. Every single body is a good body, but especially yours.
We are all works of art. What they told us before, about needing to look a certain way to be beautiful? Respected? Employed? Honored? Loved? About what carbs to cut to turn our trash bodies into a pile of jewels? It was all make-believe. We’ve always been the pile of jewels in the first place.
Empowered by Dance in Whittier, CA
GIFs to text your family
Nalgona Positivity Pride Instagram
Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN Instagram
I’ve always fought against the system in one way or another. Even as a rebel, I’ve always been practical. These two sides of me have been in conflict and harmony at various points of my life.
I spent the first eight years of my life growing up in Jamaica surrounded by my extended family. I stepped into adulthood early on as the eldest sibling of a single mom household. I had more responsibilities than the average kid and I acted like the second parent for my younger brother by helping him learn how to read and teaching him other developmental skills such as new words or colors; I was a caregiver before I hit puberty and in many ways I never felt like I had space to dream.
On top of that, Jamaican culture has very outdated ideas around gender, and sexism is a bit more stark compared to the rest of society. For example, in school they’d separate the boys and girls and all of the girls would have to take a sewing class. I remember thinking, “Wait, boys rip their pants too so why am I here?” I resisted Jamaica’s gender norms as much as I could. I’d often get called a tomboy, but all I wanted to do was climb trees and jump off of them like everyone else. As a result, I was disciplined pretty heavily, mainly because my mom and other elders didn’t think girls should be doing stuff like that.
We had school uniforms that had white undershirts and a pink tunic for girls and I’d always come home covered in dirt. All I wanted to do was roll around on the ground and look at bugs and other cool organisms in the earth. My caregiver always yelled at me. She’d say, “Girls aren’t supposed to do this” and all I’d wonder is, “Who cares about this ugly pastel thing?” It seemed so silly for adults to get upset about clothes just because I was a girl.
We moved to the United States, specifically Pennsylvania, when I was eight. My brother has an injury that he sustained during birth called Erb’s palsy, it’s an injury to the brachial plexus; his left arm had no range of motion. For years, he and my mother would travel back and forth to the US for healthcare. When the opportunity arose for a surgery that would address the underlying cause my mother decided that moving closer to the surgeon would make everything easier for us.
While we had a few distant relatives nearby, it was a pretty stark transition from Jamaica. I went from being in a place where almost everyone looks like me to being dropped into a predominantly White neighborhood with predominantly White schools. I struggled to adjust and I honestly still feel that way as an adult as I continue to occupy predominantly White spaces. As a kid, I did my best to blend in. This meant adjusting the music I listened to, changing how I spoke and changing my hair. I eventually reached a point where I told myself, they’re going to notice me anyways because there aren’t many folks like me here. It was the rebellious side of me coming back out and being confident enough to stop pursuing conformity.
I moved to New York City for college and that was a game changer. One of the reasons why I love the city so much is that, quite literally, no one gives a shit about you. I’m not noticeable. I can walk down the street and no one’s going to stop and look at me because I’m the darkest one there. I’m not different because everyone is different. All of this anonymity brings a sense of safety and it enabled me to release some of the mental trauma of always feeling like I needed to be on. I used to work so hard to convince people that I wasn’t the stereotype they’d framed me as. New York City helped me gain space from my past behavior and enabled me to question it. Why did I ever pretend to not like hip hop? Why did I ever feel burdened to prove that I was a person to anybody? It took me so long to realize that I'm not responsible for other people's stereotypes about me. It’s a constant battle but I now lean much more into erring on that being their problem, not mine.
As a child, I had a really big imagination and always dreamed about becoming a physician. As trivial as finances can be, they can dictate your life. My reality was that I didn’t have the financial freedom to spend 12 years in school without an income. So instead, I pursued a career that would provide stability, which led me to tech. While my career has certainly afforded me stability, I’ve set myself on a path where I’m usually one of the only Black women in the room. I’ve grown past the posturing, but the little things people do to remind you that you’re different still weigh on me mentally. We call them microaggressions, but really they’re just aggressions. It’s things like a person imitating how a Black person might speak when they speak with me (the “oh hey girlfriend!”) even when I don’t speak like that or people asking questions about my hair. For a really long time I’d just straighten my hair and leave it alone. To this day I’m deathly afraid of wearing my afro to any workplace because of the way people will behave. I’m not over the trauma associated with being in a predominantly White institution, and that feeling won’t go away for as long as I live in the United States. I’m a minority here and part of a marginalized group of people. I have to find my own source of happiness, even if there are other forces out there that are hell bent on ensuring that doesn’t happen for me.
I’ve reclaimed happiness in various ways. My hair is now mostly in braids. I want folks to recognize and understand that I’m not my hair. Therapy has been formative in helping me unpack what happens in predominantly White spaces. I’ve dedicated energy to learning how to not be angry at all White folks as a result of my experiences, but it’s been challenging. When the experiences become predictable and begin repeating themselves it can be exhausting to keep going. So I take breaks and remind myself that I don’t have to be a “strong woman”. That phrase is often a burden that’s placed specifically on women of color and it’s unfair. It’s important for me to say, “No, I’m not a strong Black woman. I am a person, I have feelings and I get tired.” Setting boundaries with both my employers and my personal relationships has been a critical part of my journey. We’re taught that happiness can be a permanent steady state, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, I try to remind myself and others that healing is constantly happening and we’re all processing on our own timelines. The most important thing is to be ok in giving yourself space to feel a range of emotions.
As I’ve grown through these experiences I’ve begun to rethink my future. A few years ago I wasn’t fully committed to pursuing medicine but I knew that I had to at least get close to the field, so I became a volunteer EMT. I don’t get paid for that work; what matters most to me is being able to help people however I can and with whatever tools I have. I especially wanted to practice in Black and Brown neighborhoods because it’s important for folks to see people who look like them taking care of them. It puts them at ease and unfortunately there are a lot of biases associated with groups of people and how they get care. Ultimately, I just want to be one more person working towards making healthcare a bit more equitable.
I have a better sense of the problems that patients face now that I’ve been an EMT for three years. For most patients, EMTs are their first contact with any sort of medical professionals because we meet them in their homes. We can look around and see how they’re living and that really affects what their health outcomes look like. I’ve witnessed what life is like for patients experiencing homelessness, food insecurity or having limited to no access to fresh food, which all contribute to their illnesses. Diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes aren’t specific to certain communities, they just happen to affect these communities as a result of their surroundings. While I have no idea what kind of physician I’ll be, my hope is that I don’t lose the empathy that I have now for these patients when I become a doctor. Medical training is exhausting and grueling and I can see the overwhelm and fatigue of the resident physicians when I greet them in the ER. The entire healthcare system is structured this way and as a result patients don’t always receive the best care.
Sometimes inequitable care comes from the overload, but it frequently stems from bias. I regularly saw the harmful effects that implicit bias has on patients. In one instance, we were treating a sickle cell patient and my EMT partner told me, “The patient mentioned they were allergic to a few medications but they’re just saying that because they want the hard stuff.” This is often referred to as “drug seeking behavior”. That term should be relabeled as a slur and we should strike it from everyone’s language. We have literature that states the biases of doling out pain medications and here it was just slapping me in the face. To think that someone with sickle cell didn’t need proper pain medicine to deal with their disorder is unbelievable.
There were many scenarios like the one above, but there is one that will always stay with me. I arrived at a patient’s home and she had chest pain, nausea and radiating pain up her neck. I remember thinking, let me treat this person as if they’re having a heart attack. I brought her to the hospital and told the nurse what I thought was happening and then asked her to set up an EKG. They seemed hesitant and when I kept insisting they told me, “Put her in bed 8.” I pushed back and urged them to get a cardiologist but they wouldn’t do it. I had to leave but right as I left the patient grabbed me and said, “Thank you for believing me.” When I asked what she meant, she responded, “I get these pains all of the time and no one pays attention.” I almost lost it. How is it that an entire medical system has failed you? When I came back to the hospital I went to look for her to see how she was doing. I asked the nurse where she was and she told me that they’d moved her to the ICU because she was having a heart attack. She didn’t make it. There’s no reason why she should have died. When heart attacks are caught pretty early, they’re very treatable. Instead, this patient was failed by everyone; she was failed by the physicians who repeatedly ignored her, the triage nurse, the entire hospital. How could all of these people think that she’d call 911, get in an ambulance and show up at the hospital with fake pain?
If anything, these experiences have helped me realize that my dreams of becoming a physician are so much broader than a love of science. I’m actually railing against the healthcare system. In many ways I feel like I’ve been railing against the system my entire life. My entire existence is defined by it. It’s exhausting but I know I have to do something. I often wonder if I should just focus on my corner of the world and pour as much as I can into helping these people feel heard and seen or if I should invest my energy into a bigger push for legislative change. I haven’t found my answer yet, so I continue working on my personal narrative and finding balance where I can. I don’t want to kill myself doing this, but I’m passionate about fighting for long lasting change and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I can.
Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington