At long last, the medical procedure was over. I was still a little woozy from the anesthesia, but my main feeling was that of relief. Now I could go home, eat a small meal, take a nap, and hope for lab results that meant I wouldn’t have to worry about this health issue again.
A friendly staff member took me down to the first floor lobby and stayed with me while I waited for my husband to drive up to the entrance to fetch me. One car after another came and went. Finally I saw my SUV pulling up to the curb. “There he is,” I told the staff member.
She began to wheel me through the door and offer encouraging words of farewell when she suddenly stopped. “Wait a minute,” she said. “That’s not him.” She promptly spun me around and headed back into the building.
The staff person knew neither my husband nor me. She did, however, note that the man in the car was black.
The obvious conclusion: A black man cannot be married to a white patient, even if the white patient has already identified him.
(Let me point out that my husband is African born. He has always self-identified as black, not African American, and I will use the term “black” here for that reason.)
After almost 40 years of interracial marriage, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people think we can’t be a couple. Similar events have happened often. Another time it was my husband having a medical procedure while I read magazines in the waiting room. Periodically a nurse would come in and announce a name to find a family member. I was happy when the nurse called our family name. I answered, and she slowly walked to me with a perplexed expression. She didn’t begin giving an update, as I had seen her do for others. In our case, she was clearly gathering her thoughts before she hesitantly asked, “Uh, who are you?” Odd, as I hadn’t heard her require anyone else to explain their presence or their identity. It was assumed that people of the same color are family. People of different colors were an unknown quantity.
The “you-can’t-be-a-couple” phenomenon started early on when we were first engaged and consulted a photographer about taking pictures at our wedding. The photographer looked at my fiancé and turned to me to inquire, “Who’s he?”
I remember when we were trying to sell a dorm-size refrigerator out of an apartment where we lived early in our marriage. A white couple came to check it out when I happened to be home alone. They agreed to purchase the fridge, and we shared some pleasant chitchat as we completed the deal. The woman eventually asked me, “What’s it like living in this apartment complex?” Then in a quieter tone she added, “You never know what will happen when you have blacks living near whites.”
“You’re right,” I replied. “The biggest problem we’ve had here is with our next door neighbor, who plays booming music at all hours of the day and night.” The couple exchanged knowing glances with each other. I continued, “Of course, that neighbor is white.” (Completely true, by the way.)
The conversation died out after that, and I led them to the door. They walked past a large wall-mounted portrait of us that they obviously hadn’t noticed when they came in. I almost started laughing when both of them cleared their throats uneasily and headed toward the exit at a surprising pace, considering that they were carrying a kitchen appliance.
The stories I could tell about our son would make for an epic. I remember taking him into grocery stores (me – fair haired, blue eyed; him – a lovely shade of brown skin, and enormous brown eyes with lashes that looked too long to be genuine). Inevitably someone would stop me and comment, “What a beautiful baby! Is he adopted?” I mean, what was I supposed to say?
Then there was the time a newspaper photographer was at my son’s daycare on St. Patrick’s Day. The photographer took pictures of the celebration, and a photo of my son and another child ended up in the newspaper with their names in the caption. That night as I attended a class in my doctoral program, one of my highly educated classmates – who had never laid eyes on my son – told me it was unfortunate that the names were wrong on the photo. Once again, a dark-skinned boy couldn’t possibly belong to me.
The worst example of this happened outside of our church, of all places. A very elderly woman using a cane gingerly stepped over to me and asked the usual adoption question. She was as unaccepting of my assurance that he was my flesh-and-blood child as had been the hospital staff member who couldn’t accept that a black man was married to me.
The little old lady’s eyes widened. “He’s YOUR child? Your BIOLOGICAL child?”
I had to stop and take a breath. You’re going to church, I told myself. Be courteous, even if she is being offensive. She grew up in a different era. I bit my tongue to avoid saying what actually came to mind, which was: “Lady, let me tell you exactly what happens when a black man and a white woman make a baby.” But I didn’t. I took the high road. It was difficult.
The challenges I’ve encountered, of course, are mild in comparison to the harsh prejudice and wrong assumptions to which my husband is subjected due to his skin color. To give one example out of many: he held a government job in downtown Little Rock. Every day he dressed up in a suit, carried a briefcase, and at noon took a lunch break that frequently involved walking to a nearby church to say a prayer or two.
On this particular occasion, a white woman stopped him at the church door. “So sorry,” she told him kindly. “We don’t have any sandwiches to hand out today.” The lesson: Black men, even when they are dressed professionally and immaculately groomed, come to this church solely to beg for free food.
On a more whimsical note, he was at his office when an African-American co-worker showed him that there was a long blonde hair on his lapel. “Let me pull that off,” she said. “You wouldn’t want to get home and have your wife see a blonde hair on you.” He replied that there would be no problem, since the blonde was his wife.
“Your wife is white?” She was astonished. “Why haven’t you ever told me that before?”
His answer: “The same reason you haven’t told me what color your husband is.”
Some of these stories are from years ago, but even in the 21st century we still have waiters ask us at restaurants if we want separate checks. Occasionally they bring separate checks without even asking. I have learned to smile politely and explain that my husband has been picking up the check since the 1980s, and I’m hopeful to get at least one more meal out of him. Not trying to be nasty. Just to clarify: We exist. We are here. We’ve been here a long time. Please be ready to believe for a moment that a black man and a white woman might belong together. The waiter always laughs nervously and corrects the error. Who knows – maybe he or she learns something from the encounter.
I’d like to think that healthcare professionals would lead the way in cultural sensitivity, but our recent experiences haven’t always indicated this is the case. So much talk is given to cultural sensitivity in medicine. I wonder how much of it is absorbed on an individual level. Sure, we sit through training sessions about diversity and related philosophical topics, but we’ve got to internalize it in small ways. As in: Patients and their families might not be the same color. And: Believe the patient when she says that a person of another race is her husband.
Diane Jarrett, Ed.D., Images Editor for Medicine and Meaning, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UAMS. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism and is experienced in the editing and production of photographs and graphic designs. Dr. Jarrett also serves as her department webmaster and Facebook coordinator and she is well published in topics related to the history of film.