Tuesday Open Thread: cancer cure edition
The Cure For Racism Is Cancer
BY TONY HOAGLAND
The woman sitting next to me in the waiting room is wearing a blue dashiki, a sterile paper face mask to protect her from infection, and a black leather Oakland Raiders baseball cap. I look down at her brown, sandaled feet and see that her toenails are the color of green papaya, glossy and enameled.
This room at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, is full of people of different ages, body types, skin colors, religious preferences, mother tongues, and cultural backgrounds. Standing along one wall, in work boots, denim overalls, and a hunter’s camouflage hat, is a white rancher in his forties. Nervously, he shifts from foot to foot, a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. An elderly Chinese couple sit side by side, silently studying their phones. The husband is watching a video. The wife is the sick one, pale and gaunt. Her head droops as if she is fighting sleep. An African American family occupies a corner. They are wearing church clothes; the older kids are supervising the younger ones while two grown women lean into their conversation and a man — fiftyish, in a gray sports coat — stares into space.
America, that old problem of yours? Racism? I have a cure for it: Get cancer. Come into these waiting rooms and clinics, the cold radiology units and the ICU cubicles. Take a walk down Leukemia Lane with a strange pain in your lower back and an uneasy sense of foreboding. Make an appointment for your CAT scan. Wonder what you are doing here among all these sick people: the retired telephone lineman, the grandmother, the junior-high-school soccer coach, the mother of three.
Show up early on Friday morning and lay your forearm on the padded armrest of the phlebotomist’s chair. Her nametag reads, NATASHA. She is clear-eyed and plump, and a pink plastic radio on her cubicle desk softly plays gospel at 8 AM. Her fingernails are two inches long, and it is hard to believe she can do her job with nails like that, but she’s flawless and slips the needle into the hardened, scarred vein in the back of your hand.
I wish there were other ways to cure your racism, America, but I don’t see one. Frankly your immune system seems to be the problem. Installed by history and maintained by privilege, it is too robust, too entrenched to be undone by anything less than disaster. That’s how it is for a lot of us. If you are white and doing well in America, a voice whispers to you incessantly, repeating that you deserve to be on top, that to profit is your just reward. And it’s not only white people who need the cancer cure; it’s any person who thinks that someone of another religion, color, or background is somehow not indisputably, equally human.
The first time you park your car in the vast, cold cavern of the underground garage and step onto the elevator, you may feel alien and forsaken. Perhaps you’ll feel that you have been singled out unfairly, plucked from your healthy life and cast into this cruel ordeal. Walking through the lobby with a manila envelope of X-rays under your arm and a folder of lab reports and notes from your previous doctor, you’ll sense the deep tremor of your animal fear, a barely audible uneasiness trickling up from somewhere inside you.
But there is good news, too. As you pass one hallway after another, looking for elevator B, you’ll see that this place is full of people — riding the escalators, reading books and magazines, checking their phones near the coffeepots. And it will dawn on you that most of these people have cancer. In fact, it seems as if the whole world has cancer. With relief and dismay you’ll realize, I’m not special. Everybody here has cancer. The withered old Jewish lefty newspaper editor. The Latino landscape contractor with the stone-roughened hands. The tough lesbian with the bleached-blond crew cut and the black leather jacket. And you will be cushioned and bolstered by the sheer number and variety of your fellows.
This strange country of cancer, it turns out, is the true democracy — one more real than the nation that lies outside these walls and more authentic than the lofty statements of politicians; a democracy more incontrovertible than platitudes or aspiration.
In the country of cancer everyone is simultaneously a have and a have-not. In this land no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, and pretensions; they are not even protected by their prejudices. Neither money nor education, greed nor ambition, can alter the facts. You are all simply cancer citizens, bargaining for more life.
It is true that this is not a country you ever planned to visit, much less move to. It is true that you may not have previously considered these people your compatriots. But now you have more in common with them than with your oldest childhood friends. You live together in the community of cancer.