Interpersonal Power Dynamics within Race and Class

Good grief,  it has been a rough few days. Mostly because The Husband decided that he was sick on Thursday night, and then he stayed home on Friday–it screws up the whole groove when he is home. I was like “dude, you are in my way.” We also didn’t hear from the bank regarding our bid for the house. :(As I write, I’m still waiting. They told us that short sales take forever…but this is excruciating.

March has also been a rough month because I feel like I’ve been in a doctor’s office at least once a week for the past three weeks. Dental appointment, pediatrics appointment, doctor’s appointment, and I have another dental appointment on Thursday! Booo. But I’m going to spend my post writing about last Wednesday’s experience, just because it was random and interesting.

I went in for a follow-up for a physical that I had a few months ago. Not a big deal, but my doctor wanted to re-check a few vitals after adjusting one of my prescriptions. I had to take the boys with me, and Wednesday is a playgroup day, so I was frazzled to begin with. I had also had McDonald’s for lunch–not a smooth move. So I’m trying to keep Ursa Major occupied with my Kindle Fire in the front of my tandem stroller, while Ursa Minor was sleeping blissfully (and blessedly!!!) in the back part of the stroller in the click-in car seat. As my doctor and I are talking things over, Ursa Major decides to throw my kindle fire across the room. Sexy. He then whines to get down so that he can play with it. Fool that I am, still trying to keep the conversation going with my doctor, I pick up the Kindle and give it back to Ursa Major. What does the child do? You guessed it. He throws it across the room again. The thing still works, though I swear it’s running a bit slower.

So as we’re wrapping up, Ursa Minor wakes up. The doctor hadn’t noticed him back there (I had put the shade down so as to keep the light out of his eyes and keep him asleep). So now the doctor wants to talk about the boys. Fine. But my window for happy babies at this point has just about closed.

“So what are their names again?” Asked the doctor, absentmindedly. I know I’ve told him at least five times. Probably three times in this visit alone.

“[Ursa Major], he’s two and [Ursa Minor]. He’ll be one next month.” I answer. I smile and chuckle. “We have a little motif going on.”  (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor have classical Greek names in real life. Yes, I know, their little pseudonyms are Latin…but that’s another story for another time. )

The doctor pauses. Looks puzzled. “Motif? What motif?”

Now, I’m not going to lie, I was surprised by this. Their names are very obviously classical. They aren’t obscure names. They’re quite common. And sometimes, when I’m surprised and not thinking about it, I tend to make a face at stuff like this. It could very well be that I made a face here. Like a “really? you don’t get that?” kind of face. Anyway, I say to this: “They are Greek names. We have a bit of a Greek motif going on…”

“Oh. Heh. I didn’t know those names were Greek. I wouldn’t have guessed that,” says the Doctor. “I went to really bad public schools as a kid.”

I’m going to pause right here. There is a big and significant power shift that has happened in the room. Suddenly, this man, who is in charge of my health care, and who has had, up until this moment, all of the assumed power in the room, has overly humbled himself in a very awkward way. Does not recognizing my sons names mean that you need to condemn your entire K-12 experience? That seems a bit harsh?

So now I have to go out of my way to make this gentleman feel comfortable. I try to laugh it off. “Well, I mean, you went to medical school, so how bad could it be?” I say with a comforting smile. “Besides, didn’t they teach you any Greek in medical school?” I think about it. “No, I guess that was Latin instead?”

“Yeah, no, I didn’t really learn any of that stuff. My schools were really bad.”

……Dude, help me help you here.

“I was first-gen college. I went to Newark schools.” He tells me.

Pausing again.

This White male doctor is standing in this room with me and my children telling me his (unsolicited) life story in this moment, humbling himself to the umpteenth degree…for what? This moment was so strange and yet so powerful…I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’ve been in a room with many a White man, and I have certainly humbled a few, but it’s usually through some sort of exertion on my part. And, in situations when a White man has attempted to make himself look humble in order to get in my good graces, it’s usually very fake, very stupid, and a means toward some sort of calculated end.

But this moment. This moment was significantly different. None of the assumed power dynamics in the room seemed to occur to him. In that moment, he was the outsider, and even though he doesn’t know anything about my educational background, he made me the insider.

So, again, I am trying to make this guy feel comfortable. “Wow, I mean, that’s such a great story. You clearly worked really hard, and here you are, right? I’m sure you are really inspiring for some of the students around here.” (I should probably mention that I’m affiliated with one of the local colleges here in Massachusetts…so I get to use their awesome medical facility.)

He relaxes (I think). “Yes. You know, I started a program with one of the professors here to specifically target and mentor first-gen college students…”

and from here we were able to move the conversation toward more neutral grounds. Suddenly we are both teachers talking about a passion: Worthy students (often of color) who need mentorship to help them navigate the insanity that is college, especially elite college. Eventually, confidence returned to him and we were able to end the appointment with balance and dignity.

I am sharing this story because that moment in time has surfaced in my mind multiple times over the last few days. It was just such an odd, yet genuine, moment. I feel like significant and sincere moments like that come and go without any reflection. I had a lot of power in that room at that moment, and I’m grateful that I had the wherewithal to build rather than tear down.  Usually I’m the one who is spending time making people feel more comfortable. I, like many other middle- and upper-middle class and educated Black women, have spent a lot of time perfecting my presentation so as to put people at ease with my presence and behavior. That doesn’t compromise who I am in any way (because learning how to humble people when necessary is another skill that we learn and perfect), it is just the reality and context in which I live.

So I’m sharing because I’m thinking out loud about power dynamics in the interactions in our lives.  How do we behave within the power contexts of the small interactions in our life? Do we create power-shifts without realizing it? Are expectations for power and behavior actually arbitrary, assumed, and indeed, wrong?  While this interaction certainly changed the way that I will look at my doctor, it was an unsettling moment. From now on, whenever I am with him, I’ll know that he’ll be thinking about his education in comparison to mine (and while my readers know a little about my educationhe doesn’t know my educational background. I never shared. He knows that I’m affiliated with this particular university, but it is my husband’s university, not mine). That is going to dramatically change what I choose to tell him, how I choose to tell him, how relaxed I’ll be when I’m with him. In other words, we’ve pretty much complicated and convoluted this relationship to the point where it very well may cease to be functional. Not because I have expectations of behavior based on Race and Class and Gender, but because I expect that, in those three contexts, a person should decide to share and give within the confines of their professional decorum.  Especially because what he did from K-12, indeed, what he did from K-Undergraduate doesn’t really matter. What matters is what he learned in Medical School and Residency. Should I, instead of thinking about this in a surprised sort of way, be actually flattered that this guy would share such information with me?

(No. I think that’s weird.)

And think about the power of stereotyping and the information that we share with children as they learn and grow. Here is a grown man who has accomplished a lot academically in his life. A man who has clearly set up a successful career. But in a moment benign ignorance, he blurts out that he went to a bad public school system. Not that he had a brain fart, or that he overlooked something like that. Or even that he doesn’t care about that sort of thing or has no interest in Greek/classical literature. All things considered, this guy wasn’t failed by his school system. But over his life, while he was there and after he left, somehow he has gotten it in his head that he is “less than” because of his roots. That is powerful, powerful stuff. Something to think about when teaching our own children about where they are, where they are going, and the journey in between. Because Newark is always going to be with my Doctor, positively and negatively.

So if that could happen to a grown White man who completed medical school. Imagine that power of stereotyping/negative projection on an impressionable highschooler who is thinking about dropping out? Or a pregnant teen? Or even a kindergartner in a particular neighborhood? 

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