During the summer after my first year of med school, I was hired to be a teaching assistant with a pre-med/pre-dental education program at the University of North Carolina. We worked with minority and disadvantaged college students to prepare them for professional school. We covered the usual pre-med requirements like microbiology, anatomy, and physiology. But the students spent most of their time every morning working with the reading lab to improve their reading skills. Many of them came in reading about the 25-30th percentile. I easily read at the 98th percentile. I was amazed at how much they were able to learn without this basic skill that I took for granted. Most of them had improved to 60-70th percentile by the time they left at the end of the term. One of the students had come back for a second year and told me that she had read her first novel over the winter and now she couldn’t stop reading them. Think about that: reading is such a basic gift that changes lives.
We also taught them test taking skills, something else I took for granted. It was not always easy to discern the answer to a multiple choice or the dreaded Type K questions. Type K were complex questions in which we had to choose from several true/false statements and opt for: A&B, BC&D, A, none of the above, or other combinations. Difficult for most but trouble for those who had no training in how to answer a question like that. The reading, the test taking skills, and the confidence building helped many make it into school and allowed them to thrive, rather than struggle.
I am glad I worked with that program, not because I helped them, but because I learned some lessons that summer. I didn’t really know how to name those lessons. There were 8 teaching assistants, mostly African American, one Native American, and two of us were white. It was hot in Chapel Hill, and humid. I wore shorts and T-shirts, sandals, and no make up and rode my bike to school. The other female teaching assistants dressed up nicely every day in pantyhose, skirts, make up. The men had on long pants and button down shirts. I felt hot just looking at them, until I realized the difference. I could go anywhere in town, dressed as casually as I liked and expect to be treated well. But in Chapel Hill, North Carolin in 1987, that was not the case for them. That was the summer the KKK came to march through town. If my colleagues went into a convenience store or a restaurant dressed like I was, they may have been ignored, denied service, or worse. I didn’t really know what to call it then, I just knew that I saw so clearly the differences in how races are treated. Now people are calling it white privilege, and I get it.
I understand it and know I have white privilege. I also know that I can be guilty of subtle racism. I still offend without thought. Just last night, I wrote about “natives” - bad choice on my part and I should know better. Habits and ingrained lessons are hard to lose and hard to see in oneself.
I know I live in a bubble of privilege and am protected from the coronavirus because of that. It makes it easier to be impatient and easier to comply. Sobering to see that the people that are most affected by COVID-19 are the low wage workers in many places. I wish things were not this way, but they are. Because of all the events of the week and the pain I see, I could not avoid writing about my privilege today because that is where my heart is. Kindness and compassion are still the answer, and education helps.
Wash your hands and cover your nose.
And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading.