By Nora E. King
I sat in Mayo Clinic’s St. Marys Hospital cafeteria with my clinical team, in that awkward way medical students know too well: the attending physician (“consultant” at Mayo Clinic) buys you a cup of coffee and then proceeds to gossip with his buddies for the next 15 minutes. It’s never clear whether you should chuckle along with the stories or pretend to not listen, absorbed in your notes on the patient list.
Unusually, the cafeteria was filled with music. “What’s that noise?” someone said. We glanced around and noticed a poster with sepia photos of famous Black Americans. “Oh, it’s Black History Month,” his colleague replied, “that’s nice. Let’s get out of here, the music is too loud.”
A while later, I was using the restroom and happened to glance at the floor, where I saw this drain:
How can we have both of these things within a hundred feet of each other? We celebrate diversity when it’s “nice”, but neglect to confront our offenses. Admittedly, it would be hard to tear up a bathroom drain. But, surely someone somewhere at this institution made the conscious decision to purchase drains from an overtly-racist company? Ironic timing, in light of the recent Medical Grand Rounds presentation at Mayo Clinic on February 18th by Dr. Dave Baines, the first American Indian graduate of Mayo Medical School (class of 1982).
Dr. David R. Baines with Marcy L. Averill (Mayo Clinic Spirit of EAGLES) after his presentation, titled “Culture, Spirituality & Healing: A Journey of Enlightenment”. Photo by Andrew M. Harrison
I hesitated to write this. As a white, straight, able-bodied woman, is it my place to point out our embarrassments? Are these battles and grudges really worthwhile? Am I missing the point completely, hunting for tangible problems, when there are more important things to address? If, as a person of privilege, I’ve noticed such things, I wonder what ethnic and social minorities must experience.
Over the past several years in Rochester, Minnesota, I’ve collected incidents of racism like ugly mementos. I never know quite what to do with them—speak up, report them, stay quiet—so I’ve stored them away. There was the time a resident referred to ethnic minorities as “colored people”. Another time a nurse anesthetist referred to the Latino McNeilus steel plant workers as the “illegals in Dodge Center”. My first landlord said Rochester was getting more dangerous because of “those people from Chicago”, which I understood to be a reference to the city’s Black community seeking jobs, affordable housing, and peace in other Midwestern towns. A consultant told me he was nearly color-blind because he once dated a Black woman and is half-Asian. I’ve previously written about the awful, benevolent naïveté of how we approach diversity, ignoring an indigenous patient’s identity by marking a Latino checkbox rather than Native American (500 years of colonial oppression aside, a minority is a minority, right?). By no means am I innocent either: I recently embarrassed myself by speaking to an elderly Somali patient as if she must be very provincial and quaint, only to learn she was quadrilingual in Somali, Arabic, Italian, and Swahili. She had also held a prominent communications position in the country’s first democratic government decades ago.
Permit me to explain the (potentially offensive) title. In Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, she describes a completely normal-seeming man who was found to be the principal architect of the Holocaust—evil incarnate. Adolf Eichmann was not particularly intelligent or ambitious; rather, he just wanted to conform to society and those he admired. From this, Arendt constructs the idea of the banality of evil: assuming charge of, or playing along with, others’ horrific decisions. Doing so essentially transfers moral decision-making to one’s social superiors. I borrow her line of thinking not to compare bathroom drains to the holocaust, but to question myself. When I fail to confront these racist incidents, am I as destructive as the person who said “colored”? Does our institution get to check the “Celebrate Black History Month” box because they put up a poster & played some music?
Here at Mayo Clinic, I believe too many of us take a banal approach to race. Culture is “nice”, something to celebrate with bright colors, posters, and food festivals. At the same time, we neglect to have difficult conversations about privilege, our own offenses, failures, and superficiality.
Nora King was born and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She graduated from Boston University and is currently a student at Mayo Medical School. Nora spent the 2013-14 academic year in Guatemala as a U.S. Fulbright Student Scholar, working with indigenous Kaqchikel Maya midwives, and is applying to residencies in Obstetrics and Gynecology.