An Open Letter To Humanity

"It never occurred to me that there was still racial bias."
09/27/2016 08:03 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

I’d like to apologize.  I am truly sorry for not sooner seeing the racism that exists in this country and for not doing more to change it.  I was raised to value the inherent nature of all humans and have always considered all to be equal in value.  For much of my life, I wasn’t aware that not everyone felt the same way.  I thought that slavery and the treatment of African-Americans thereafter was horrific, but that those days were over.  It never occurred to me that there was still racial bias.

I got my first awakening as a college student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, years ago in a sociology class.  We were assigned an essay discussing how race played a role in the outcome of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill proceedings.  Like about 80 percent of my classmates, I wrote that it didn’t play a role at all. hey both were African-American.  My professor tactfully asked how things might be different had Anita Hill been white.  My eyes were opened, a little.

Over time, I continued through my life, befriending people of all colors, cultures, genders, and interests, embracing our differences as unique gifts.  I thought it was enough that I embraced equality and encouraged my children to do the same.

Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed thought-provoking conversations.  I love the concept of polarity and seek to understand numerous sides of any given issue.  In 2015, I had an extensive conversation with a highly-educated, highly successful, African-American man.  I was shocked by his experiences of racial inequality.  I truly had no idea.  We took the conversation deeper.  I started to understand.  That conversation was a huge gift.  It changed the lens through which I saw the world.

I started to see the inequality everywhere, most prominently in terms of safety.  I started to understand the white privilege I never knew I had and, quite frankly, am ashamed to experience. I saw story after horrible story.  Stories of a 12-year-old child shot while playing with an air-soft gun at the park; a female college summer teaching associate jailed for three days where she ultimately died as a result of failing to signal a lane change; a man being shot in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old child after being pulled over for having a burned out taillight; an unarmed, church-going man shot while having car trouble.  Each story has made me more distraught than the last, as each is an atrocity against our collective humanity.  Each of us is part of the whole.

As a woman, mother of five, and doctor, who has always put herself in the shoes of those around her, I FEEL the suffering of our African-American community.  It physically hurts me.  It hurts all of humanity.  It has to stop.

To Those Who Say, “Why Didn’t S/He Listen?”

First of all, I get it.  It’s a lot easier to place blame or point a finger than it is to admit that something horrible is going on in our society.  To admit that would require being part of the solution or feeling guilty for not, neither of which is easy.

To explain, it’s not nearly that simple.  In recent years, I’ve learned a lot about trauma.  It’s something we’ve all experienced to varying degrees; it’s part of the collective human experience.  Under times of extreme stress or a triggered emotional reaction, typically fear, the limbic system takes over in a fight, flight, or freeze pathway.  The neocortex, or logical brain, goes entirely offline.  The reaction can manifest itself in a variety of ways.  “Fight” may look like belligerence, physical fighting, or resistance.  “Flight” may show itself as physical fleeing or emotional/cognitive withdrawal.  Under extreme stress, when either of these is not possible, the natural response is to “freeze”.  Animals do this by playing dead.  People may demonstrate it by being non-communicative, uncooperative, or otherwise unresponsive.  The key is these are “reactions”, entirely out of one’s control, not chosen responses.

For example, I am utterly terrified of spiders.  Were I to see one on me, my heart would race, I would scream, I might drop/throw anything I’m holding, I might run, or I might freeze in sheer terror depending on the situation.  Logically, I realize that’s a bit crazy and that a spider isn’t going to hurt me.  Unfortunately, it’s not possible to access that logical part of my brain from a limbic state.  Certainly I’m not alone.  Earlier this month, a woman flipped her car when a spider dropped from her rearview mirror.

I offer this as an example, not to diminish the very real fears that the African-American or other communities experience, but to show the commonality in our human fear response.  While you may not be afraid of spiders, surely most people have experienced something similar, be it fear of heights, bees, thunderstorms or any number of things.

Imagine how that fear response overtakes you, how it completely defies all ability to think and behave reasonably.  Now imagine a situation more frightening than being a black man surrounded by police officers with guns drawn.  I truly can’t imagine anything more terrifying.  As a white woman, I can honestly say I’d be terrified, even if I’d done nothing wrong.  I’d collapse into a heap on the ground.  My ears would be ringing so loud and I’d have tunnel vision so severely as my body tried to induce a fainting response, that there’s no way I’d be able to “cooperate”.

To Those Who Say “All Lives Matter”

I hear you.  I get it.  I agree with you that all lives matter, each and every one of them, regardless of race, age, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, disability or any other identifier.  I’m also ordering my Black Lives Matter t-shirt.  Let me tell you why.

Being a doctor, I like physical body metaphors.  Suppose you injured your finger severely; it was bleeding heavily, was broken, was in pain, and was at risk of being lost altogether.  When you go to the Emergency Department, you want, no, you need the medical team to focus on the injured finger.  It’s not that the other fingers are less important.  To focus on them in the current situation rather than saving the injured finger would be distressing, disrespectful, and extremely frightening.  Certainly the other 9 fingers are part of the whole and should not be harmed by the treatment.  They should continue to be treated with respect.  They are just not the priority when one finger is in crisis.

To the Police Officers

First of all, thank you.  I wholeheartedly appreciate your service and the risks that you and your family accept as a condition of keeping us safe.  We need you.  We respect you.  We appreciate you.

I cannot even imagine the fear you must experience doing your job; approaching a car not knowing what or who you’ll find inside; approaching an individual not knowing if they are in need of help or armed and a threat; having to make split-second decisions regarding the current situation while being cognizant of the surroundings and outside factors; being the subject of judgment and scrutiny while still being human.  I cannot imagine the fear your family must experience wondering if you’ll come home safely.

While my knowledge of the life of law enforcement is limited, I do understand fear, the limbic system, and trauma.  It would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to keep one’s limbic system in check when faced with extreme fear, to “respond” from the logical mind, rather than “react” to the threat perceived by the limbic brain.  I wonder how often shootings or other altercations occur while under the control of the limbic system.  I wonder how often those officers live in self-judgment for actions as a result of “reaction,” which hijacks logical thought and protocol.  I truly feel for them, as fear and its reactions are common to all of us, though most of us don’t experience such devastating consequences.  I truly hope that advanced training is being implemented on keeping the limbic system in check, given the inherent danger in this very important work.

To Society

“Fish are not aware of water.”   Author unknown.

Racial equality is all of our responsibility.  There is no avoiding it.  Damaging one segment of our society is damaging the whole.  It must stop.  The time is now.

The first step is to open our eyes and our awareness to the water around us.  I found this really challenging in the past.  First of all, I truly didn’t see it.  Second, I probably didn’t want to.

So how do we open?  For me, it starts with considering each situation and wondering how things would be different had race been different.  This has been a process of inquiry.

For example, the Anita Hill allegations may have been handled differently had she been white (thank you, sociology professor).  How often is a white person pulled over for a burned out taillight or failing to signal a lane change?  How likely is it they would be dragged out of the car, arrested, or shot for these violations?  How often do we hear a white child is shot in a park for playing with an Air-Soft gun?  Consider the haunting reference to the “big, bad dude”, a judgment based on race and height, two things that an individual cannot control.

Next, imagine the long-term effects.  As a physician, I know several people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of racial inequity.  The medical community is beginning to understand epigenetics, the process by which experience gets coded into our DNA and is passed from generation to generation.  Imagine the effects of passing down this fear.  I also know that it’s impossible to thrive, when your very survival is threatened.  We all know that people don’t learn or perform well under conditions inducing fear.  How does this significant disadvantage continue to promote racial stereotypes and inequity?

In the medical profession, we like to focus on the process, creating processes that produce desired results and limit the likelihood of undesirable outcomes.  Let’s examine Conceal and Carry.  I’m aware this is a hot-button topic AND I still believe it’s relevant.  In any kind of conflict or situation between individuals or involving police, there now is concern that someone could be carrying a gun.  There is a potential threat that didn’t exist before.  Now certainly there were criminals in possession of guns in the past.  They were quite definitely a threat.  We didn’t, however, have to worry about guns legally being brought into our medical clinics, schools, restaurants, malls, etc.  There was an element of feeling safe in those places that is now gone.

I would love to hear from law enforcement on this issue, because I have to believe that this has significantly contributed to the increased number of shootings of unarmed suspects.  It’s got to be utterly terrifying walking up to a car and not knowing if someone in the car is armed.  I have no idea how you keep your limbic system regulated, and it makes me appreciate even more the sacrifice you’re willing to make to serve and protect.

There are those that seek gun control to end the violence, citing examples of peaceful nations.  There are others that fear law enforcement and its power and feel the need to self-protect.  The divide is growing wider.  I encourage all of us to be part of finding the solution.

I encourage all of us to become aware of the water and to find our own way to be the change we want to see in the world.

To Mothers

As a mother, I am beyond distraught.  I FEEL the fear and pain of all mothers.

I think about how much I love each of my 5 children.  It hurt me when my 2-year-old would say “hi” to someone who would completely ignore them.  It hurts when they are the subject of gossip or rumors.  It hurts when false judgments are made, when others don’t see the inherent beauty that I see.  It hurts me when they dig up a flower for someone as a gift, only to be told it’s a weed (dandelion), crushing their generous spirit.  It hurts when someone makes a critical statement and crushes their hopes and dreams, telling them to stop dancing, singing, drawing, or dreaming.  I feel my children’s pain when they hit the upper limits of society’s constructs.

I feel the fear and pain of mothers in war-torn areas, devastated that their children are unsafe, that they are not strangers to violence, and that this has become “normal” for them.  I feel the fear and pain of mothers who are unable to provide food, clean water, or medical care for their children.  I feel the fear and pain of mothers whose daughters’ health and lives are at risk due to cultural or societal constructs.

To African-American mothers, I also feel your pain, and your children’s pain.  I feel the pain of knowing they are judged based on the color of their skin.  I feel your fear for their safety.  I feel your fear for your safety and your concern of how your children would survive without you.  I feel your desire for them to express their unique gifts and become their greatest selves, yet your fear that it’s not possible given the societal inequity.  I feel your fear that they’ll always doubt themselves and their value.  I feel your fear that they’ll never realize their greatness.

I am grateful that I don’t need to worry about my white children coming home safely after an evening out with friends.  I am grateful that I don’t need to worry about them being pulled over or worse while driving home from work.  I am grateful that they have opportunities for education and to become the people they were created to be.

As mothers and grandmothers of every race and ethnicity, regardless of political beliefs or other differences, we need to stand with and for each other in creating this for ALL of the world’s children.

Please stand with me.

Melissa Kalt, MD

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