The Receptionist Is A Bitch: In Which I Am White

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:

plague

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.”

Sigh.

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.

Advertisements

The Sportball We

I love language. The trivialities of linguistics, the odd words we use, how simple semantics can change entire meanings, dialects, colloquialisms: it’s all awesome (except, I admit, there are some accents that I hate, but that’s a whole other thing). English is remarkably complex and word-wealthy, borrowing from so many other languages and spreading across the whole globe, that there are practically no rules in English that aren’t at some point broken yet still considered correct, and just when you think “okay, this thing is a rule and there’s only this one exception”–BAM something else hits you in the face!

But I think I’ve come across something wholly unique in the English language, and I am fucking pumped. I have come to affectionately deem it “The Sportball We,” and, Dear Reader, I would love to explain, especially since it’s about to be the Super Bowl.

The Sportball We is something that we all are familiar with, but it hides in plain sight (hearing?), and you’ve probably never given it a second thought. Let me be clear: this is not a rant. I don’t care that people do this; I just find it fucking fascinating. What I am calling The Sportball We is the phenomenon that occurs when a person speaks about a sports team as if they are part of that team despite it being understood by everyone that they are, in fact, not a player of or other peripheral teammate to, that team. Example:

Did you see the Lightning game last night?

Yeah, we really crushed the Canucks!

or

Do you think we’ll make it to the Super Bowl this year?

or

Are you guys getting a new head coach?

Those second two examples are especially interesting since they can be said utilizing The Sportball We as a total replacement for the team name if all the speakers in a conversation know which team the answerer is “part of.”

What is most fascinating about this to me is sports are the only activity or organization that the speaker is not actually a part of yet speaks as if they are. When I tried to find other examples, my mind immediately went to religion and houses of worship. People say “we” when discussing their congregation or religion; however, they actually are part of these things. People are Christians or people belong to and attend a mosque. Sportball We-ers don’t take an active part in the game in the way a Jewish person might actively celebrate Passover, but SBWs do, in some way, take a passive role in sports by being fans.

So I thought, okay, what are other things of which people are fans? Music, of course. But do Beyonce’s fans leave a concert declaring “We totally slayed it on stage!” or ask one another if they’ve seen our new video yet? I don’t think so. Sometimes people refer to a fandom as a whole that they are part of, but that’s the thing: you are part of a fandom as you can take an active role cultivating it, but you’re not part of the band or musician, and music fans have a distinction in their speech that SBWs do not.

The same can be said for people who say “we” about their hometown or their alma mater. Though they might not live there or attend that school anymore, they did at one time, took an active part in living there, and would still be considered a representative of those peoples.

The only thing that seems to come close is when men say “we’re pregnant.” Your buddy Bob at the office is hauling around a fetus and vomiting his guts out as much as he’s tackling Tom Brady on the 30, but at least he actually (probably) had a hand in making it possible for a fetus to eventually exist, and in that way we can kind of parallel conception to being a dedicated sports fan who “helps” their team win. However, there are a lot of people who find the “pregnant we” weird, and almost no one who thinks The Sportball We is bizarre.

In fact, I never thought The Sportball We was weird until I started working in a male-dominated department where sports were discussed in numbers equitable to how children were discussed in my previously female-dominated department, so the language was constantly in my ear. It’s just a part of American culture and language, and that’s kind of cool. There is, of course, a lot that could be said sociologically about patriotism and sports fanaticism, but I’ll leave that to someone else for now. Instead, we can all just marvel at the uniqueness that The Sportball We brings to English.

Also if you think you have another instance of a “we” used in a socially acceptable and understood instance despite the user having no actual, active participation in the activity or organization, leave a comment below, Dear Reader, and I’ll be happy to tell you why you’re wrong.