Grow a backbone!

Before leaving home from a long day at school, I tend to stop by the security guard’s desk. He’s a super nice guy and I respect him deeply. All of my fellow classmates hang out with him at the front desk at times and care enough to offer him pizza whenever we are having class events at which pizza has been catered.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked a little bit about microaggressions. I had been fuming about yet another comment made by an undereducated classmate, I can’t even remember what that was because this, to me, was worse.

I argued that I people need to be more aware of the things they said.

He told me that I need a backbone.

Then it turned into an argument about economics.

He argued that he and his parents are hard workers and shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s children’s schooling when he has his own kids to pay for.

I argued that had it not been for scholarships, I would not be where I am today, that scholarships are necessary for people who cannot pay for an education and yet are every bit as deserving of one as someone who could. I mentioned that his son will inherit a house and possibly other assets while I, the daughter of an immigrant who, try as she might couldn’t achieve her dream of becoming a doctor, will inherit the debt she accumulated in pursuit of said dream.

He then recalled that he, as a cop, worked in areas like the Bronx and Hempstead and that every inhabitant did the same thing every day, most of which, he asserted was stand on the corner. He called the people of these areas and areas alike lazy. I understood that statement as an insinuation that I somehow cheated the system, that I got into medical school because it was handed to me for less than it was worth to other students. It’s a familiar standpoint–the minority only got in because of Affirmative Action.

A GPA worthy of Dean’s List at one of the nation’s top private universities is not Affirmative Action. Doing research through dawn every summer is not Affirmative Action. Interviewing at 7 medical schools is not Affirmative Action.

I struggled to argue that the schools in the poor income areas are shitty–even the teachers believe you won’t amount to anything. That the employers see last names or hear an accent and immediately surmise you won’t be good enough for the job. That when you have systemic conditions like these, yes, it will be incredibly difficult to actually amount to anything.

He is definitely someone who believes in bootstraps, which is not at all a bad thing, but it is somewhat flawed. It is hard enough to pull your boots up, but when your bootstraps have been nicked from the start, there’s only so far your boots will go. And when the metric for establishing someone’s character is whether the boot has been pulled up, it is important to take into consideration the amount of effort that it took to get the boot up in the first place.

He didn’t quite see that his son started wanting for nothing and will encounter little resistance on his way to further establish wealth that will allow him the opportunity and the privilege to pay for his children’s education. I and my friends started with nothing and have encountered many an obstacle and it is grit that has gotten me this far, not handouts.

I just so happened to be carrying an article about a young MD, soon-to-be-MD Ph.D. of Mexican descent who had just finished giving his dissertation and I left it with him. I joked that he must give me a full oral report on it the next day. I was trying to make the point that microaggression is a thing we see constantly that reminds us every day of where we came from and what people think that automatically means–less than, unintelligent, vagrant, lazy.

This physician was waiting for his car at the valet with his wife. While he waited, a car approached, a lady dressed in fancy threads go out on her way to the next event at the venue and handed him the car keys. He looked the part of a valet because he is of Mexican descent and remained so well after earning his degrees.

He read the article and then told me that the writer had lied and that “white privilege is not a thing.”

At that point, I was done talking, I was tired of trying to change the mind of a fifty-something-year-old man who has lived his fifty-something years believing that I am worthless and a burden to society. I am literally standing in front of him–a girl from the Bronx and Harlem who grew up in a single-parent home making well below the poverty line, who went to lackluster public school–a disadvantaged girl turned medical student, having worked immensely hard to get to here and working harder than I thought was possible just to pass my exams, and he is essentially saying that it is all for naught. He is essentially saying that I will always be where I came from and that where I came from produces nothing good, nothing that survives without leeching from the system.

One of my friends chimed in that first night with “we’re not asking for your hard earned money, we are asking you to be a good human being” which I thought was especially poignant.

All we ask is that you take a look at our color or our economic status and decide that those things don’t define how tenacious, creative, or adept we are. All we ask is that you understand and are sympathetic to the circumstances that lead people to their current state in life. All we ask is that you realize that yes, your ancestors worked hard, but they didn’t have to work from a legacy that devalued and negated their every move. All we ask is that you consider that if we started 10 miles behind you and are somehow still running the same race, we must be darn good at something and that we might be worth more than our stereotypes.

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