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Photo by Owen Beard on Unsplash

The Inhumanity of the White Man Wall: A Patient’s Perspective

As a decade-long survivor of a chronic medical problem, I have been variously perplexed, astounded, and ultimately disgusted by the constant, subversive, and intrusive display of white supremacy called the ‘White Man Wall.’ This prominently displayed set of richly-appointed portraits at hospital entrances invariably feature whites only, with a large preponderance of males. In the last hospital I visited, I counted 22 white men and two white women on this wall, which lets the world know that brown, black, and indigenous (B/B/I) peoples are incapable of leadership and that the achievements of whites are the only ones that matter. By extension, this wall conveys to B/B/I patients that we aren’t worthy of representation, ultimately telling us that our bodies don’t matter. Granted, some attention has been paid to this issue recently, but the direct impact to patients has not been discussed in comprehensive ways.

This discussion may have little to do with the individuals featured on this wall, some or all of whom may have been benevolent individuals and contributors to society; rather, it is about the overall collective impact to B/B/I peoples of constant reminders of institutional white supremacy about which white people seem to be in denial. Collective behavior matters. These portraits are yet another method by which a white supremacist society reminds us, as people and women of color, that we don’t matter.

As a mixed-race and ethnicity woman of color, I perceive this wall as a continuous, repetitive reminder of our centuries-long oppression which is actively promoted by a white supremacist society through ignorance and denial. The fact that this wall reflects long-standing, discriminatory and exclusionary policies which continue to the present time reflects some of the reasons for the very real, experienced disparities in health outcomes between whites and B/B/I peoples. The presence of the White Man Wall reminds whites repeatedly, with a visual cue that doesn’t require the legal risk of overt claims of superiority and the resulting litigation, that they are the ones who matter while simultaneously ignoring the ongoing, continuous negative impact to B/B/I peoples.

I am repeatedly baffled as to why this display of exclusion, such an obvious illustration of white supremacy, is presented to the public with overt pride. This flippant disregard for the experience of B/B/I peoples should be deemed morally unacceptable. The presence of this wall fails to acknowledge what my experience as a patient must be when this constant visual data is presented, over and over again: physicians who are worthy of acknowledgment must be white. By extension, I don’t matter in the final analysis: after all, if well-educated B/B/I women — doctors, no less — are represented at rates of zero percent at higher levels where voices matter and decisions are made, why would I, a B/B/I patient, matter? Why do I disappear when it comes to representation? Why is my body less important than a white one, not just in one hospital, but in the over 25 I have utilized in different cities where I’ve lived?

Health outcomes inform us, with objective statistics, that women of color — in particular, African-Americans and the Native American/Indigenous groups — have statistically significant disparities in health when compared to whites in a multitude of disease states, including diabetes, cancer, and alcoholism. This is an ongoing feature of white supremacist institutionalization which results in automated advantage for whites. The institutionalization of the unearned benefit of being born white persists, not only to privilege whites but, as is clear from health outcomes, to damage B/B/I bodies through exclusion. The White Man Wall only reinforces these current realities by reminding us that our representation is irrelevant at best. In fact, the Wall says, our exclusion is desirable.

As an effective visual reminder of white supremacy, the White Man Wall is a national embarrassment. It illustrates, in both overt and unspoken terms, that whites are the only ones deserving of leadership and, by extension, that white patients — white bodies — matter more. Why is such pride taken in reminding people of color that we are still perceived as fundamentally inferior? Shouldn’t this be perceived as shameful and immoral?

I recently asked a friend — a female physician who is a woman of both Chinese and Bolivian descent — if she ever noticed this wall. She acknowledged it immediately, stating she thought of it as a ‘panopticon:’ a method of social control and domination which does not require physical restraint or overt acknowledgement, allowing those in power to deny its impact and maintain/sustain their own power. It exists to remind women of color in particular that, when it comes to leadership, they need not apply. She acknowledged she is not sure if this is deliberate, but pointed out that intent and impact are different. That is, regardless of whether or not individual whites intend to perpetuate this overt statement of dominance, its overall impact is negative to the people of color who are reminded exactly what this wall symbolizes each and every time we walk by it. Whites matter most. We better not forget it.

The fact that the White Man Wall still exists in public areas illustrates a lack of humanity towards B/B/I peoples. As a patient, I disappear when I face this wall. My physician-friend has told me that she, too, disappears. The perpetuation of this wall symbolizes the overrepresentation of whites at all higher-level healthcare institutions. These are lucrative positions at decision-making levels, and perhaps this is the reason the White Man Wall is continuously displayed. Those given the opportunity and voice are the very ones who benefit by overrepresentation and who cannot possibly feel its deeply negative impact on a personal, embedded (lived) basis. Thus, B/B/I peoples are subjected to subpar behavior due to the ignorance of privileged people who maintain this ignorance through continued privileging of each other.

It should be obvious that, if pragmatic changes aren’t made at executive, Board of Directors, and advocacy levels (such as the AMA), the deleterious impact of these images will continue to buttress the white supremacy all should be working to dismantle. The constant reminder to me, as a mixed B/B/I female, that I am not worthy of representation only echoes my reality as well as that of most B/B/I women: we are at higher risk for a range of medical problems which, ultimately, we carry in our actual bodies. Against the backdrop of this egregious reality, is it really necessary to continually perpetuate that reality by allowing the White Man Wall its public persona? Presenting a hospital to the general public in this way only reinforces our inferiority as B/B/I patients, caretakers, and even doctors, reminding us repeatedly not only of our extensive history of subordination but also that it continues unabated. As an important aside, my physician friend recently left the field of medicine, citing both patient and administrative discrimination as her main reason.

These portraits should be placed in a private location where they cannot automatically impact B/B/I people negatively. Personally, I think they convey white supremacy in cogent visual terms and belong in a white supremacy museum as a reminder of how humans should not behave, and that attention must be paid to collective behavior, not just individual. I don’t doubt that some witness the White Man Wall with encouragement and reassurance, but I would urge those people to put themselves in the shoes of most B/B/I peoples and try to imagine the impact of repeatedly viewing this wall, month after month, day after day.

As a B/B/I mixed female patient, my lack of representation is tri-compounded by social subordination on an ethnic, raced, and gendered basis, not to mention the chronic medical issue which, on a statistical basis, I am more likely to get because I am not white. This fact is even more penetrated for African-Americans and Native Americans as expressed by their significantly poor medical — bodily — outcomes relative to whites and other people of color. For those of us such as B/B/I females who grapple with a number of feet on our necks, the impact of this wall is fundamentally destructive. One option is to place these portraits in an isolated room so that the general public is not subjected to its implicit message. This option gives those who want to give the ‘OK’ sign to this symbolic homogeneity and racism a private place to reassure themselves without inflicting on others a constant visual reminder of our inferiority and lack of opportunity as equal beings.

The obvious connection between the public display of one entirely homogenous racial group and the lack — often complete dearth — of minority representation at higher levels of leadership, where voices matter, is the core pragmatic principle. Leadership must change to reflect a true equality, not the tokenism which maintains our current system.

B/B/I peoples, as a rule, understand that each of these men was an individual and that some of them were very likely accomplished. But the message that the proud display of this wall sends, regardless of the individual merits of those white people, is a reminder that white supremacy was and continues to be an extremely effective form of utter and complete exclusion, a newfangled and unique form of fascism that did not exist until Europeans invented it.

It is high time for historically racist institutions to act in an anti-racist manner, not to simply pay lip service. Thus far, white people continue to protect their investment in power by making claims to ‘equality’ but by contrast, acting as if their dominance should continue.

With our current scientific technologies, we should all be acknowledging how the decisions to exclude B/B/I peoples at leadership levels is the ultimate derogation, as reflected by the homogeneity (fascist history) of these walls. After hundreds of years of this, our invisibility as pigmented peoples has resulted in real diseases that actually render us physically invisible through higher mortality.

In order to have a truly equal society, any psychological attempts to maintain the opposite of it — -white supremacy — should be eliminated. This attitude would lead to real humanity: a consideration of other peoples and thus other bodies as equally valuable to white ones. Perhaps this will lead to improved health outcomes for all people rather than the inequality which currently supports inferior health outcomes of B/B/I, relative to whites, guaranteeing that our literal bodies are compromised.

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