My Anger

Although I write a blog that centers people of color in exploring the connections between the medical system and race  – an activity that has always been fundamentally personal – I rarely discuss how it personally affects me.

The occasions in which I have, were driven by my need to make sense of Trayvon and Walter, Tamir and Freddie and to reconcile their lives with how I move in my life, as a black physician. But there is no sense to be made of state-sanctioned murder and each time I left the task weary with emotion.

I used those emotions to power 6 months of writing and editing my first submission to Pediatrics, the most important academic journal in my field, on police violence; both begging and demanding this type of violence be considered a devastating threat to public health and safety for children of color. The first comment my co-authors (also black women) and I were asked to address was what the editors called our “anger” and the last was to “say something nice about the police.”

Here I was, asking to be seen; asking for black children and families to be seen; but having to respond to why I don’t see police and why what a white man perceives as my emotion, is a problem to be addressed, in writing. My emotion. That they named anger.

To be labeled angry and asked to publicly disavow said emotion for professional legitimacy was nothing new, for me, my co-authors, or centuries of black women accosted by the limited public characterizations of our person-hood. But when they named my emotions anger, did they also name my tears? Did they name the deep humiliation I processed to explain, to a pediatric medical journal, why the deaths of black parents and children should be a priority?

Did they furiously, nauseatingly, mind-numbingly, cry over the public executions of their people? Did they choke and swallow those emotions back everyday just to function as a productive adult in the world? Did they wake to bury the devastation that allows them to hold academic conversations about the threats, challenges, and disparities that may amount to the extinction of their people?

In medicine, if we talk about racism at all, we talk about how it is unfair – but no ones fault really. Short of bias training that validates a generalized lack of explicit accountability – we primarily do nothing. It is as if medicine thinks the solution to centuries of systematic racism and racial inequality that continues to poison black bodies, young and old alike – through public divestment, disease and varying degrees of despondency – is self-reflection.

But it is killing us.

Racism. Is. Killing. Black. People.

Sometimes I feel the poison in me. Squeezing my chest in anxiety, fear, or fury as I navigate the complex terrain of my public female black-ness, trying to wear my emotional and intellectual complexity in a way that at best, allows me to be seen but at least, prevents me from being dismissed altogether. The daily work of avoiding the silencing that accompanies being mistaken as simply an “angry black female” while also finding safe spaces to be a black female who can hold anger and the emotional complexity inherent to full humanity – is an extra job, that I do, at my regular job and on vacation.

Sometimes I see the poison in my family, as they do the work of making space for their whole self in a world that can easily, effortlessly limit them to an assumed identity. I watch them negotiating other people’s comfort in an exhausting performance of excellence and I understand the raw pain blackness chafes on their humanity.

Racism excludes black people from public goods and private sympathies. It is the root cause of health disparities, the education gap, the wealth gap, the gender wage gap for black women, and the unconscionable incidence of institutional violence against black bodies.

And in so much that medicine ignores that root cause, it is and will remain complicit in the maintenance of institutional racism, both inside our walls and out.

So just in case you have wondered or are wondering, yes, I am angry.

I feel intense and unapologetic anger. But know, my anger isn’t the poison, racism is.


25 thoughts on “My Anger

  1. Rhea, thank you so much for this post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I begin a career in medicine, a field that often seems like it values the ideal of scientific inquiry over taking a steady, hard look at how it has contributed to and perpetuated systemic violence and inequality for minorities in the US. I so value having voices like yours advocating for a different vision of medicine.

    • Thanks Ramya for reading my piece! I agree with you, we have to dissect the ways medicine contributes to the structural violence that harms people of color. I plan to write more on this in the coming months…so stay tuned! Also, students can act as powerful mirrors for entrenched systems that are less attuned to their own deficiencies. So your recognition of this problem can be an important tool to hold the institutions you are affiliated with accountable because your voice is the enlightened future of our field.

      Until next time!

  2. Rhea, your comments are thoughtful, intelligent and true. Please, continue to speak honestly about the emotions and issues faced by black people, especially by black women. We are free Americans who define our standards and values of citizenship and of personal conduct and thought for ourselves. We are not puppets or robots who mindlessly allow the police, the academic hierarchy or the political class to dictate our priorities or opinions. Better to have righteous, compassionate and intelligent anger than to exist in a fog of ignorance, apathy, meanness and idiocy. Your Mom and I could not be more pleased that our children have not allowed the rot of the world to destroy their values of themselves and of other people of color.

    • Wow! Thank you Ayanna! I have such deep respect and admiration for you, your leadership, and your accomplishments! Your support moves me. Much love, Rhea

  3. Thank you for your much needed piece addressing the abominable racist beast that runs rampant in our society . My beautiful children and their friends are staring in this beast’s eyes, outraged, wounded, scarred, and jaded by the numerous documented murders committed by our ” public servants”, witnessed by the world, and left to rot on the roadside. I am disgusted by your colleagues response to your public outcry, discounting your honesty to an angry display, in need of “kind” words for the police force. Thank you for eloquently speaking out as a public servant, serving the community, in spirit, heart, soul, and mind !

  4. Hi Rhea, apologies but your post left me with many unanswered questions. Were the comments from the Pediatrics editorial board positioned as mandatory or suggested? And if mandatory, what are your contemplated next steps? Have you and your co-authors considered going beyond simply submitting an article?

    • Thanks for reading the piece Mark! For those who aren’t familiar with the process of submitting a paper to an academic journal for publication, prior to being accepted, authors are often asked to respond to editors’ comments. The editor-in-chief often consolidates those comments and may add their own. Those comments and edits must then be responded to, in writing, to be eligible for further consideration for publishing. In terms of next steps, it sounds as if you have some suggestions. If so, please share. And I’ll have to ask you to explain your last question. Which article are you referring to? And what do you mean by the word “simply?”

      • Hi Rhea, thank you for explaining how the academic journal publication process works and sorry for the confusion. By “article,” I meant your submission to Pediatrics on police violence (now I see I should have said “paper”). By “simply,” I was wondering if you were planning to do anything post-submission. For example, formulate a policy:

        While the approach of issuing a list of demands has generated plenty of controversy, it’s also resulted in real progress at Georgetown and other institutions:



      • Hi Mark, thank you for the clarification and for the links. I am familiar with both of the examples you provided. In terms of addressing how the American Academy of Pediatrics (they publish the journal Pediatrics) addresses police violence, I did write a policy last year, shortly after the article in fact, that was passed! It used the language of the paper to ask the Academy to study and advocate to address the ways in which adverse police encounters impact children, particularly children of color. There is a now a committee that has been assigned to consider this issue among other issues that disparately impact children of color. The results of the committee work have not been released yet, but it is a step in the right direction. I also work with advocates in California to address the impact of criminal justice legislation more broadly on public health. Here, the road is long, but committed and passionate people are working on it. The point of my blog piece was to highlight the ways that work is obstructed and minimized by institutional and personally-mediated racism and how that process takes a toll on me. Thank you for really engaging the piece and considering it more deeply. In peace, Rhea

  5. Sorry, just thought of another suggestion: perhaps one demand could be that medical residents are required to complete a rotation in an institution where 90% of the physicans are black and/or women.

    • Interesting idea. While numbers may shift power dynamics, centering the needs of patients of color across the US medical system luckily does not require training doctors in predominately black institutions (and unfortunately there are not enough people of color in medicine to even do this for every medical resident). While historically black medical schools and hospitals have played an incredibly valuable role in caring for the poor and people of color in the US, in 2016 we have to find ways to integrate the care and needs of diverse populations in all medical sites. Not only because of the limited capacity of HBCU institutions, but because successful integration is what dismantling racism requires. The work here involves disrupting the hidden curriculum that institutionalizes racism in medical training, recruiting and supporting a diverse workforce that limits racial disparities in health services, and using hospital and medical system resources to give back to the populations most affected by disparate care. This last point is the subject of my blog post that goes live tomorrow (10/11). Check it out and let me know what you think! Peace, Rhea

      • Actually, I wasn’t thinking of requiring rotations in HCBU…more like in countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa.

        Looking forward to reading your next post!


  6. Dr Boyd-
    Thank you for sharing your life’s experience. I hear you, and will continue to try and be a better white ally. And by you sharing this essay, you are helping me inch my way closer to that goal.


  7. I do not understand this piece. What are you talking about ? Public executions? Are you talking about police killing black people? Yes they do, but they kill more white people, every year. If you are black and killed, its a 93% chance that another black person killed you. Racism? Of course there is racism. There is always racism. There was racism against Irish, Italians, Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics, and don’t get me started about Asians. Very tough racism against Asians, in fact our first immigration quotas were against Asians. We fought 3 wars within 30 years (quite recently) against Asians, we napalmed them, dropped atomic bombs on them, herded American citizens who were innocent citizens into camps, completely trashing their rights! If racism was so important a determinant of group success then how the f do the Asians succeed? Ponder this. Was there more racism in the 1930-s and 40’s when there were Jim Crow laws and very tough anti-voting schemes, or now under President Obama? There was less black on black violence back then. There were more intact black families back then. in 1940 the black illegitimacy rate was 14% (no fooling). Rhea, please consider that your central thesis is not true. It is not racism which accounts for black society problems, the police are not trying to kill off black people and maybe, just maybe there are other reasons for the poverty and overall black society dysfunction causes you. I suggest the welfare state which replaced the black father in his family with the government as a starting point. Its bad for whites too, but the blacks were more vulnerable since they started out poorer.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for reading the piece and admitting that you don’t understand how race and racism works, in current American politics and historically.

      For more information to help put some of the pieces together check out these references:
      1. Here is something I have written on black on black crime to help refute the idea that police violence is less important than the intra-racial (for example, white on white crime) crime that exists within all racial groups.
      2. The idea that European immigrants encountered a racism similar to that faced by Black Americans is problematic and many scholars now agree, untrue. It is problematic because the terms of European immigration, living conditions, labor practices, and access to social and economic mobility, while not ideal and for many rooted in poverty, were still distinctly better, in every sense, than African Americans, who lacked such advantages. That is why those advantages are referred to as, “white privilege.” But don’t take my word for it, check out my good friend and colleagues book, White on Arrival. The author is a college professor and the book details the history of Italian immigrants and the tangible benefits their “whiteness” conferred on their elective arrival in the US.
      3. For your question about Asian success, read this NY Times piece by Nicolas Kristof that answers your very question. You may also find his column series “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” a good introduction to racial inequality, written by a white man.

      Lastly, I would ask you to do the hard work of questioning your assumptions, investigating your emotions around these topics, and seeking to understand the world from another person’s point of view rather than simply your own. While developing empathy is certainly challenging, it is the first step necessary to understand how someone may see the world completely differently than you, but no less clearly. Or in short, I’m not wrong. Deal with that.

      Thanks again,

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