What I Learned About Racism Working at an Inner City Health Center

This is a topic I could write, and write, and write about… because I learned a lot. A lot. So, this will very likely be the first of many posts on this topic. I’m committed to keeping the Mission Leader’s Journal Blog pithy and to the point and in honor Martin Luther King, I thought I would share two important lessons I learned about racism from working at a community health center that served mostly black members of the community. I’m white and so, for the first time in my career and life, I experienced what it feels like to be in a minority. Oftentimes, that was fine, comfortable. Occasionally, it was awkward… mostly because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. A few times, it was painful as I needed to confront something deep within me.

Again, I could say a lot here but I’ll describe two incidents that occurred and which I still think about all these many years – two decades in fact – later.

The first took place when the director of finance, Akin, and I went to get a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. Akin is a black man and he became a close and trusted colleague of mine. Somehow, we got on the topic of racism and I remember distinctly, as we walked from the parking lot into the restaurant, my bold assertion that went something like this: “Isn’t it great that racism is so much better than it used to be and that it’s mostly gone now!”

After a few second of silence – I could tell that Akin was musing over my proclamation – he offered me the following lesson, which I remember as though it happened just this morning. He said: “I have an experience all the time that you probably have not. When I walk into a place like this Dunkin’ Donuts, people turn away from me and someone always grabs their pocketbook or checks to make sure that their wallet is secured in their back pocket. Just watch….”

We then proceeded to walk up to an elderly white couple and as we approached them in the line leading to the counter, the woman clutched per purse and the man leaned back and made sure his wallet pocket was buttoned. Both turned away from us. Or, to be clearer, away from him. Akin continued: “I think we still have a lot of racism, but it’s different and more subtle than it used to be.”

The second incident took place when a coworker invited me to her family’s home for dinner. She described it as a “traditional soul food experience” and indeed it was. I was accepted into their home warmly and enthusiastically. We laughed, told stories, and by the time I departed, I felt as though they were now my own family too. I will admit that when I drove to their home, I was a bit nervous knowing that I would be the only white person there. I felt awkward, as though I would stick out, not fit in. As we walked through the front door, my coworker leaned over to me and whispered: “I hope you will just be yourself tonight. Don’t try to be anyone different. My family is smart and they will pick up on it if you are not being real… because that would be the worst thing you could be with them.” I cannot tell you how much those words helped… and for reasons I still ponder today. “Being real…”

My experience working at that health center changed my life and for many different reasons. As I said, this post is probably just the first of many…

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