Commentary: What happened at Brigham Young University is not unique | Columns


On August 28, a spectator at a volleyball game at Brigham Young University shouted the N-word several times at Rachel Richardson, a player from Duke University. There was no intervention from school officials before the end of the match. And while it may seem like an isolated incident, racist taunts like this are a routine experience for black Americans, and silence from non-black bystanders is the harmful norm.

The first time I got called the N-word to my face was by a Caucasian patient who was angry because I didn’t want to get him out of the hospital. It happened when I was on tour as a doctor on call, in front of a crowd of white staff. Some of them were supervisors, who had spoken to the angry patient about various hospital protocols seconds before, but all fell silent after the N-word. Suddenly, the bossy staff members had nothing more to say. No one asked me if I was okay. No one told the patient that racism was unacceptable.

And the sad reality is that I didn’t expect it. My experience mirrored that of so many of my black colleagues across the country, who had been the target of racist threats while their non-black colleagues said and did nothing.

As a medical student and now a psychiatric resident in mental hospitals, I have cared for and advocated for countless black patients, many of them children, who have been tormented by white patients with whom they share common spaces. , called the N-word several times while the white staff watched without intervening. In my experience, the only staff who responded with urgency in these situations, spoke up to protect black children, and explicitly told white children that racism would not be tolerated, were black and brown staff. Some of my patients were only 8 years old.

But there’s nothing special or unique about hospitals – my black child patients tell me they’re often called the N-word by their white classmates at school and, again, often without the intervention of predominantly white teachers and administrators.

Self-proclaimed allies sometimes tell me that they don’t take a stand against racism because it is so subtle and hard to identify. While this may be true in some cases, this explanation doesn’t hold true in the case of racist language that uses the N-word – it doesn’t get any more blatant than that.

Black youth suicide rates are on the rise, rising faster than any other racial or ethnic group in America. Racism can and does contribute to depressive symptoms, and sometimes, is the trigger for depression itself. Yet young black people are not only forced to fight against racist individuals, they must co-exist in racist institutions that do not respond adequately when racism occurs. And that must change.

Prosecutions against hate speech are difficult to enforce. But in the meantime, hate speech protocols can be applied in all institutions. When the instigators use hate speech, a coordinated and united response must be unleashed, in which the aggressor is removed from the neighborhood as soon as possible, with a new responsibility to follow. In the case of a sports match, such as Brigham Young’s, this is quite doable – the spectator should have been immediately ejected from the hall.

In a hospital, it is also possible to segregate racist patients and confine them to certain areas. If a racist incident involves children, the parents of the targeted child as well as the perpetrator should be contacted, as they would for other serious incidents. Racist incidents are harmful not only because of the act of hate itself, but because of the silence and lack of support from non-black spectators and institutions in general.

The N-word isn’t just an offensive word – it represents the traumatic history and current reality of violent racism experienced by Black Americans. What happened to Brigham Young was another failure to protect black people and take a proper stand against racism. Let’s not let this happen again.

Amanda J. Calhoun is a resident in adult/child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center/Yale School of Medicine. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.


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