Opening Argument: Not A Reading List, But A Reading Lens
Getting to talk to Lauren Michele Jackson this week about the idea of the anti-racist reading list was really a privilege. She raises so many interesting issues about the books not read, and the sort of "If you haven’t paid attention to this until now, then … ???" feeling, and so much else. I got thinking about my conversation with her while listening to the book Diagnosis, which wouldn’t appear on any anti-racist reading list at all.
Diagnosis: Solving The Most Baffling Medical Mysteries is by Dr. Lisa Sanders, who writes a column about mysterious illnesses for The New York Times. The book is basically a series of vignettes in which she investigates patients’ searches for answers: this doctor thinks you have a migraine, that doctor thinks you have allergies, and then some other doctor — usually a doctor who notices something other people don’t, or knows what to ask, or is just more patient or more trusting of the patient’s instinct that something else is wrong — figures out the answer, or at least an answer. Usually an uncommon answer that really takes imagination to uncover.
And because of the atmosphere of this week, as I listened to it, it really started reminding me of the many stories about disparities in health care, including but not limited to work on maternal mortality that’s been done at NPR. Because as you listen to Diagnosis, one of the things that really stands out is that figuring out what’s wrong with people, and in fact whether anything is wrong with them, involves all kinds of guessing. Educated guessing! Good-faith educated guessing, in many cases! But still guessing.
It’s not just guessing about the relationship between symptoms and diseases, either. It’s that doctors vary widely in how much stock they place in it when a parent says, "Something is wrong with my child," or when a patient says, "Something is wrong with my heart." Is it evidence of anything when a patient you think is undergoing treatment that will eventually work talks about terrible pain that hasn’t yet abated? Or do you just wait and see?
Since we know how ingrained biases are in general, some implicit but many explicit and willful, how can we possibly believe those gut instincts aren’t affected by the race of the patient, whether the patient is transgender, or whether the patient strikes the doctor as "educated"? How about "hysterical"? In more concrete terms, doesn’t it seem likely that a doctor who’s spent most of his life around white patients might be more likely to pick up changes in their bodies, like rashes and bruises, than he would with a Black patient? Isn’t it at least a challenge to consider?
So what I think I learned from Lauren, and from a lot of the reading I’ve done this week, is that it’s not just about reading a different mix of books (although that’s important!). It’s about reading with a sharper lens, paying attention to how all manner of things intersect with race, with poverty, with gender identity, even when that’s not the topic of the book. Even when it’s you, and not the language on the page, bringing that to the table.
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What We Did This Week:
I spent a lot of this week pondering The Help, and I wrote an essay that tries to dig into some surprising parallels — and, obviously, sharp contrasts — between that film and the classic Do The Right Thing.