This article appeared on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 15, 2007. It headlined the religion section of the UPI’s main page that day.
Today is the day set aside to celebrate the birth and to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve always felt this holiday to be a good day to take stock of how far we have come and how far we have yet to journey along the path toward building a society that honors and celebrates the beautiful diversity of the human family, but this year is different for me. Issues of race and society feel closer.
Two weeks and a couple of days ago, I had an experience that confirmed in my gut what I have long known with my heart and in my head: American society has yet to witness a realization of Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where people are judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. We still have much work to do.
I spent New Year’s Eve in the emergency room of the San Diego Children’s Hospital. While we were visiting my in-laws in Southern California, my three kids got a particularly virulent intestinal virus, and in the late afternoon of the last day of 2006, my almost-three-year-old daughter, Nellie, started to hallucinate.
It was scary. We went to the hospital, where, despite a crowded waiting room, we were rushed into an examining room, where a pediatric resident saw us within minutes.
And then a funny thing happened. As Nellie was being evaluated, someone from the hospital’s admitting and billing department came in to take down our insurance information, and seeing the racial composition of our family (my wife and I are white, Nellie is Asian), she asked me to produce documentary proof that I was, indeed, the adoptive father of my daughter.
All of our adoption papers were 400 miles away in a file cabinet in my house in San Jose, and this was a problem. What followed was a odd verbal dance. The hospital worker kept rephrasing and re-asking the question, hoping that somehow the same request, posed differently would enable me to produce an adoption certificate. I kept rearticulating my answer in the hope that a morphed response would make not having the papers acceptable. It didn’t work.
After a shorter version of the same dance with the department manager he took my drivers’ license off into the hospital’s bowels. Thankfully, whatever happened with my driver’s license—a background check, perhaps—seemed to fix the problem.
Our family experienced a fairly common phenomenon that night. We were stuck in a nexus of stereotype and fear. In our case, the commonly held assumption that children should be racially similar to their parents intersected with a commonly shared fear of kidnapping psychopaths.
At the time, we were too worried about Nellie to be overly concerned when we were subjected to scrutiny we would not have received if we were Asian or our daughter were white, and there was even a part of us that was relieved by the treatment we received. After all, the fear of stranger abduction is a fear we share, and in some ways it was good to know the hospital was alert.
With a little bit of distance, however I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with what happened in the hospital that night. Interracial adoption is not so exotic a phenomenon in American society that a biracial family should arouse suspicion, especially at a children’s hospital in a cosmopolitan city like San Diego.
It’s hard to rid ourselves of racial stereotypes, and it’s even more difficult to shake our fears. Where we have some control, however, is where prejudice and anxiety intersect. If we want to honor Dr. King’s legacy then we must put some kind of buffer between our racial assumptions and our fear. That buffer can be faith, hope, charity, or simple decency. Whatever works should be employed.
In the end, we never found out what was wrong with Nellie. While the medical staff was contemplating a spinal tap to test for encephalitis, the pediatric resident gave Nellie a popsicle, and after that she was fine.
It would be nice if a similar panacea could cure society of the ills created in the nexus of stereotype and fear. There are no easy answers for this volatile intersection, but working to keep prejudice separate from fear is a good place to start.
Note: Using this column as a starting place I preached a sermon on the same topic at Foothill Presbyterian Church on January 14, 2007. Click here to read a rough and unedited version of the sermon’s manuscript.