I had this idea a few years ago after I left healthcare to write a book about my experience working as a receptionist and office manager. Over the course of the almost four years I languished in healthcare, I completely transformed as a person from someone who genuinely loved her fellow human, believed there was kindness and altruism at the core of all souls, and who thought redemption arcs were an inevitability even for the most grumpy Gus, into someone who, well, this about sums it up:
That book was going to be called The Receptionist Is A Bitch, but I never got around to it, so instead I’ll just share those stories here, if you don’t mind. I’m the bitch-ceptionist, by the way, despite being the nicest fucking person to every god damned asshole that walked through those doors (except the one time I did have to call the cops on someone, that’s another story) but I have been called pretty much every name in the book for one reason or another, and was even accused of killing someone. Another story.
But this is a more general intro, and yes, it’s about race because that’s pretty topical right now, and, Dear Reader, ya girl would like the views. Let me preface this by saying I’m very white. It’s an inescapable fact of my existence. There was a single instance when I was thirteen and starting at a brand new school after a summer where I got a little tan when a teacher asked me what “kind of Mexican” I was, but after assuring this man in a position of authority over me that I was simply Italian, and only half at that, I haven’t been confused for anything but Caucasian since.
I’m acutely aware of the privilege that comes with my race, especially since I can hold up this experience against being a woman, but that does lead me to my point here: white people tend to see other white people and assume they can say any completely insane thing that pops into their head about anyone who isn’t white that they think is a universal truth but is actually kinda (see: totally) racist.
It seems to be this weird assumption most have that people who share some characteristic with you must think just like you. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t think this way–if you know you’re bizarre and no one’s ever thought the same fucked up shit you’ve thought–you’re right. Stick with that. You will save a lot of other people a lot of second-hand embarrassment. Not yourself, of course, because when you tell these people who think everyone around them that’s physically like them shares the same thoughts as them that your opinions don’t coincide with theirs, you immediately become the pariah. But at least you won’t inflict pariah-hood on others.
This is the basis for the weirdness I encountered regularly. I was approached by lord knows how many white people who knew only one thing about me besides the color of my skin: I had to agree with them. If you’ve never worked in the service industry, well, congratu-fucking-lations, but if you have you would probably agree that the forced smiles and the “customer is always right” attitude is the worst part of it all. And people way too frequently want you to confirm incredibly racist, sexist, homophobic, awful things.
At Dr. Kapoor’s office, I was, for a while, the only white person. Indian physician, one black and one Puerto Rican medical assistant, and me. I like to believe we all treated every patient with the same amount of kindness and concern to their faces and the same amount of animosity and ridicule behind their backs, but we were only half of each of these relationships, and being the white employee, I too frequently heard the underlying racism of the patients masked as the aforementioned “we agree on this of course” thinking.
A good example is the innumerable times I was asked if Dr. Kapoor could speak English. I’d confirm yes, especially since I’m pretty sure the MCAT is only in English. No, no, they’d say, can she actually speak English? Not like, ya know, enough to ask where the library and the bathroom are when on holiday in the states, but enough to have a real conversation? Well, yeah, I’d tell them, I only speak English, and I have conversations with her every day. I don’t think you get what I mean, they’d tell me (and, Dear Reader, they were right, I didn’t, at least not the first couple times), so they’d clarify: is her accent thick? Am I going to be able to understand her?
I always ended up saying that I, personally, could understand her perfectly well, but sometimes her inner New Yorker would make her sound a bit more aggressive than she meant to be.
It’s not a totally unreasonable question for elderly people who are already hard of hearing and because of the fact you’re going to hear a lot of medical terminology you’re probably unfamiliar with, but having an accent certainly does not equate to not speaking the English language. And it was extra offensive coming from patients who could themselves barely eke out a sentence without two double negatives and a made up word like “tooken” or “irregardless.”
Sometimes the covert racism came from the strangest of places. Once I had a patient who came in for regular infusions in an otherwise empty waiting room. She was very nice and we all liked her a lot. While she was waiting to be taken back, she was chatting with me at the window and started talking about our black medical receptionist (positively, the assistant was legit great), and she says about my coworker that she’s “the nicest black lady I ever met.”
The patient wanted to know if that would be okay to tell said coworker. “So, here’s the thing,” I told her, very carefully, thinking it would be okay to try and have this conversation with the typically very empathetic and patient woman, “If you have to ask if it’s okay to say to her, that probably means it’s not.” I have to give her kudos for having the tiniest realization that that shit was at least potentially racist, and in my position of service provider, I didn’t really want to have that conversation, but then she pushed me. Are you sure? Yeah, I told her, totally sure. But really sure? Because it just seems like a nice thing to say to me! She was challenging me and getting really aggressive.
Where I sat behind the window to the waiting room, I could look to my left and see right into Dr. Kapoor’s office, hidden from the patient’s view, but she could hear everything that went on. I glanced over at her and she had put down her pen, kicked her feet up, and was willing me on with a huge grin that basically said good-fucking-luck. So I tried. “By saying she’s the nicest black lady you’ve ever met, you’re implying that all the other black ladies you’ve met were not or at least less nice, and that you totally separate your experience with black people from that with other people. Does that make sense?”
She was very skeptical of my explanation, and I suspect the conversation only ended because she was called back, but up until then she was super determined to get me to agree with her point of view despite asking for my opinion. It was very odd.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like a huge deal to you, and maybe it’s not, but just letting this stuff go, especially when someone shows at least a little bit of interest by breaching the question of “is this appropriate?” (which is incredibly rare) I think is a disservice to ourselves and each other. Also I didn’t want this patient going back there and saying something even worse right before the medical assistant stuck her with a needle.
I would hang up on anyone who insisted on calling Dr. Kapoor “Mrs. Kapoor” though. That shit don’t fly when you’ve sat across from the woman in her white coat and listened to her rattle off your lab results and diagnose you with a chronic immune disease that no other physician has been able to figure out for the past six years. This is your physician, and it’s doctor or bust, buddy.