The Precocious Child

I had difficulty sitting quietly in my seat.  Excited about new ideas, my hand shot up before the teachers asked their questions.   I enjoyed sharing the correct answer and loved the classroom.  Even as a kindegardner, I  set my clothes out the night before to prevent any delays in the morning, and then I ran the three blocks to school.  I was the “precocious kid” that drove the teacher crazy with my musings. 

So it was no surprise that one day my teacher informed me that my mom was going to join me after school, and we were going to meet the headmaster of an elite school across town.    I sat in front of the prim and properly dressed white woman and held my mother’s hand as they started their adult conversation about my joining her private college-prep school.

The headmaster explained the curriculum, the yellow bus that would pick me up daily, the full scholarship, the performing arts program, and the incredible opportunity.  Their school would set me up for attending any one of the country’s best colleges.

Later that evening, my parents informed me that I would not be going to the private school, ride a yellow school bus, or learn how to ride horses.  My parents reminded me that in the next school year,  I would have Mrs. Edwards as my teacher.  My distress about the affluent private school across town dissolved quickly.  Mrs. Edwards, one of the only black teachers at my elementary school, was the smartest, most life-affirming teacher I would ever experience.  She continues to be a legend.

I never asked my parents directly why they didn’t feel comfortable sending me across town into an unfamiliar community of white people and affluence.   I reflect on the social and political backdrop of  1964. Poor people were screaming for equal opportunity by rioting in the streets across urban cities all over the country.   We heard about black churches in southern towns being burned to the ground almost weekly, and civil rights workers killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.  I am sure that fear kept me close to home.

I completed my education in that segregated public elementary school; however, that would change.  Mandatory busing integrated my junior and high school.  I went on to graduate from Ivy League colleges and one of the top medical schools in the country.  I am convinced that my success was directly related to my parent’s decision to keep me close to home, their unwavering belief in my abilities, and the brilliant educational foundation I received from the teaching of Mrs. Edwards.

Stacie L. Walton MD, MPH, recently retired from Kaiser Permanente as a clinical Pediatrician serving in the roles of both Diversity Champion and Communication Consultant. She served as a medical consultant in diversity issues for healthcare providers and institutions for over 25 years.

Currently, her cultural competency themes highlight the impact of implicit bias and privilege in patient interactions and health outcomes, as well as, how effective patient-provider communication requires both competences and humility.

Privilege is Your Superpower

The medical team stood around the older woman’s bedside. As one of the students, I prepared to meet my assigned patient. While being assigned to me, Mrs. R. yelled, “I’m not letting that  N*** take care of me!” As the only Black person in the room, her words meant for me hung in the air.  Frozen in place with my heart racing, I fantasized walking out of the room. Without a break in the conversation, my third-year resident, the most senior person on the team, used his superpowers of whiteness, maleness, and seniority to inform Mrs. R. that her bigoted behavior distressed the team. He granted her a choice. She could change her attitude, or we would help her find another hospital. Forty-eight hours later when I arrived at the ward, I learned that she transferred to another hospital in the middle of the night. My third-year resident chose to be my ally. He set a tone for the team and reminded everyone my skin color didn’t allow anyone, including a patient, the right to disrespect and degrade me.  He used his superpowers for good.

There are three prominent aspects of our superpowers.  One,  we all have privileges afforded to us in society. You may be male or tall. You achieved a high level of education or inherited lots of money. You may be socially agile or recognized as being pretty. You may be white. You may be able-bodied or straight. You may have been born in the United States or be a Christian.

The second often frustrating aspect about superpowers is they sometimes allude you.  When you hold a privileged position in society, that privilege offers a buffer to the effects of that social condition.  The advantage becomes the “norm” for you.  One strategy for identifying your privileges is to listen to the stories of those who are at a disadvantage.  Don’t be quick to discount the stories about patients refusing care from the colleague with the foreign accent or sexual harassment continually occurring in the hospital.   Just because it has never happened to you, doesn’t mean it never happens.  These stories are the key to stepping into and owning your privileges and your superpowers!

The third aspect of superpowers is having the discernment for how and when to use your superpower.    The most important thing to realize is when you decide to embark on a courageous act or conversation, you need to understand your role, to act from conviction, not emotion, and to understand the ramifications.

I encourage you to identify your superpower! Imagine you could become the superhero that saves the day on hospital rounds, helps boost team morale, or secures the opportunity to strengthen a special relationship. Remember, everyone has one or more superpowers.   Identify your privileges and commit to using them for good. Advocate for others in situations where their social position, medical condition, race, country of origin, LBGTQ status, disability, size, gender, or rank in a medical setting sets them up for discrimination or harm. I guarantee your life in medicine will be more vibrant with friendships and collegial relationships developing and flourishing for a lifetime. Teams have the opportunity to thrive and do great things for patients and their families. Take some time to reflect on your superpowers, your privileges. Have you used them for good?