Part of my job as a physician is fact-finding, but the other part, the art of medicine, is storytelling. How I go about collecting a history, how I listen to and take seriously, and prioritize a patient’s concerns, and the trust or mistrust I engender, all affect how the patient receives the story of their illness and the subsequent outcomes. As a white woman working at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York City, I have had the opportunity to confront my own passive acceptance of a system which destroys black communities and functions as if inmates’ lives are disposable. And, as an artist/interactive storyteller, I have come to understand that how we as a country talk about race and injustice perpetuates the racism that is pervasive in our systems. Facts do not exist in a vacuum. The way we tell stories matters. The New York Times publication of Tom Cotton’s call for military suppression of “insurrectionists” such as myself, a white woman doctor, mom, and artist, is one such glaring example of this.
The entrenched, pernicious narrative of the “good” and the “bad” mostly black protester/person is one that we see in the news as well in discussions with family and friends. The minute you fall into that narrative, you are supporting the racist system— not because acts of property damage and vandalism are not worthy of opprobrium or prosecution, but because you are privileging one kind of narrative over another much bigger and more important one. The narrative of “good” and “bad” overrides and is used to overlook the real violence done in so many ways to black people every day. The “bad” protester narrative is a distraction that plays into America’s underlying racism, whether acknowledged or not, that black people deserve less than justice because they are lesser, uncivilized, barbaric. This is a narrative handed down from slavery. It has infiltrated the subconscious of our white society so that we are not even aware of it. If you talk about vandalism, talk about systematic economic injustice, talk about systematic educational injustice. Give those equal time. This is not a white liberal justification for these acts of destruction. It is a plea for changing priorities in our storytelling. It was the exceptional brutality of George Floyd’s murder that lead to these protests. But, that exceptionality belies the fact that racism in American economic, political, educational, and social life is so pervasive and fundamental that for many people it is essentially a non-story—just the way things are. But, these are exactly the stories we need to tell, again and again, until we finally hear them and create substantive change. That story above all others is this: black lives matter.