The invisibility of whiteness has never been an issue for me until I took this class. And when I became aware of the invisibility of my race, I began to notice it explicitly in other places, specifically when it came to the media.
Grey’s Anatomy is a television show that is often highly praised for its racially diverse cast of characters, and more often than not in its recent episodes, it is praised for the attention it brings to highly relevant social justice issues, one of which is race and racism and how it ripples into the bubble of Grey’s Anatomy. But Grey’s hasn’t always been this way.
In an episode from season 12 of Grey’s Anatomy, the lead character, Dr. Meredith Grey, treats a man named Lou, who suffers a seizure caused by a head injury, and enters a temporary fugue state. While in this state, which he wouldn’t remember happening, he became overly aggressive and physically attacked Meredith, which physically incapacitated her for months on end.
Lou is a black man.
If any of the press had caught wind of this incident, no doubt that Lou would have been branded as a dangerous black man, especially because he had attacked a white woman, even though he was not conscious when he attacked Meredith. Grey’s Anatomy failed to even acknowledge the fact that it chose to have a black man portray the attacker, which no doubt played heavily into viewers’ stereotypes about black men being dangerous. But aversive racism is powerful, and the people running Grey’s Anatomy would be horrified if they were ever characterized as being racially motivated to cast a black man as Meredith’s attacker.
Grey’s Anatomy only highlights the importance of acknowledging racism in certain contexts, such as when a young black boy is shot by police for trying to get back into his own house in an upper class neighborhood, or when a white woman suspects she was being racist and feels terrible about it. In any other time, racism and race is not mentioned.
But shouldn’t a show like Grey’s Anatomy highlight the difficulty that its doctors of color would have had getting hired at a hospital as prestigious as the one at the center of the show? Or about the experience of non-white patients, who face more difficulty with insurance issues than white patients, or have to work twice as hard to foot their hospital bills?
Grey’s Anatomy treats all its patients and its doctors equally, but that is simply not the experience of people of color within this country’s healthcare system, and by ignoring these issues, it is perpetuating white peoples’ belief that the healthcare system treats all patients right.
The opposite cannot be more true. Black people are more likely to live in underprivileged areas, go to underprivileged and underfunded hospitals, which have higher mortality rates. If a black person were to seek treatment at a hospital as prestigious as the one on Grey’s, no doubt they would face resistance and reluctance by the doctors there, though it would not manifest in overt racism.
Grey’s Anatomy tries very hard to treat all of its doctors and all of its patients equally, because everyone is a human being and should be treated equally. However, this rejects people of colors’ real life experiences within the healthcare system, because Grey’s Anatomy, though it tries to mirror real life, mirrors an ideal, color-blind real life, where all patients, regardless of race, are accepted and treated for. If it acknowledged the highly racialized experiences of people of color within the healthcare system, both from the doctor’s perspective and the patient’s perspective, perhaps something more would be done to fix this broken system.
If Grey’s Anatomy changed the way it portrayed its characters of color to include their race as fundamental parts of their experience in the healthcare system, would it affect white people’s perceptions of the issues within the system? Would it motivate white people to fix the issues within the system? Or would white people deny that this happens, because all doctors take the Hippocratic Oath and therefore are bound to treat all the sick and injured, no matter their race, ignoring years of Jim Crow laws that forbade doing just that? White people would do just about anything to deny that their race exists.