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Keisha Gibson, MD, MPH (Credit: Rochelle Moser)

Exhausted. Traumatized. These words describe what so many communities of color are feeling as we grapple with the seemingly never-ending instances of unarmed Black and Brown people losing their lives at the hands of police for either non-violent crimes or during everyday activities that most people take for granted.  Breona Taylor, an EMT, was gunned down by police as she slept when they raided the wrong home. Ahmaud Arbery gunned down by neighbors while out on a jog for unsubstantiated claims that he looked like a suspect guilty of home burglaries and resisted a ‘citizen’s arrest.’ George Floyd’s final words of “I can’t breathe” traumatically remind us of those same final words uttered by Eric Garner—also apprehended for a non-violent crime. Or recall, Colin Kaepernick, a football player enduring death threats and stripped of his career aspirations for simply kneeling peacefully to protest the injustice of the murders of unarmed Black and Brown people. These images are in stark contrast to the humane treatment of a young White male draped in a bullet proof vest and provided food to eat after killing nine Black members of a church. Each new incident aggravates wounds already on fire.

Appalled. Despondent. These words describe the emotions of many in the White community. Those who have been brave enough to speak out against these atrocities also feel powerless and distressed for not knowing how to help or “fix” the problem. The blindfold of those who claim to ‘not see color’ or have comfortably lived with the privilege of not having to ‘see race’ has been ripped off and they are now forced to look at life through a different lens. The picture is shocking, though not surprising if you care to look. Many believe that racism is growing or getting worse, but that’s really not the case. Before, it was “hidden in plain sight.” Now, because cell phones and videos are ubiquitous and we have the ability to rapidly and broadly disseminate images through social media, the suffering that was concealed has been brought to the forefront. It has become much harder to ignore the injustice that many communities of color have long described. Inaction in the face of need perpetuates the racism that remains pervasive throughout our society.

Those of us in the medical community would like to think that the walls of our hospital and duty of care provide temporary protection from the mental drain of processing these harrowing events and reckoning with these challenging times. It’s difficult to feel that way when you identify as a person of color and feel you have to drop the worry you carry for your own children and other family members with the constant thoughts of “This could have easily been them or me.” It’s difficult to do that when you hear about the derogatory comments levied against our Asian colleagues helping to lead our battle against COVID 19, or the tendency to focus on biology as a driving explanation for the disparate outcomes that we’re seeing in Blacks and Hispanics with COVID 19, without concurrently acknowledging the clear social disparities that drive disparities in outcomes for COVID. The lack of conversation around these issues perpetuates the silent suffering of having to ‘wear the mask’ as we do our best to perform the jobs we were brought here to do.

How do we cope?

Report and call out bad behavior when it happens. If you’re not comfortable doing it real-time, don’t hesitate to report to those of us responsible for picking up that responsibility.

Keisha Gibson, MD, DOM Vice Chair of Diversity and Inclusion, kgibson@med.unc.edu or 919-445-2638
E. Nathan Thomas III, PhD, SOM Vice Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, nate_thomas@med.unc.edu
Aleyah Pryor-Pankey, System Executive Director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Aleyah.Pryor-Pankey@unchealth.unc.edu

We shall lead by example, and maintain sight of our shared humanity.  This is how we will cope together and set an infectious example that will spread to the community around us.

Keisha Gibson, MD, MPH
Vice Chair for Diversity and Inclusion
Department of Medicine