I don’t know where the saying “silence is golden” came from but I suspect silence is sometimes not golden. I notice that The University of Iowa quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. for MLK Human Rights Week is “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Although I could not find the exact words, that doesn’t mean it’s not written in one of his books or letters. I found a similar statement in one of his speeches which I think captures the sense of it:
In Dr. King’s, Address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church, in section VI: A Plea to the White Community: “If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Pertinent here is a presentation given by University of Iowa Health Care psychologist and professor of psychiatry Dr. David Moser, PhD and medical student Destinee Gwee, entitled “Responding to Mistreatment.” One of the first bits of advice is to speak up if you see racism happening.
When I was a first-year resident on rotation in the inpatient psychiatric wards, one of the patients assigned to me roared at me “I don’t want no nigger doctor!” more than once. I discussed the issue with my supervisor. It was a difficult conversation. It was a long time ago and I recall mostly the sense that we both felt awkward. I asked that the patient, who clearly didn’t want anything to do with me, be transferred to the care of another resident. I don’t recall whether he offered to talk with the patient and he deferred on asking another trainee to take over the patient’s care. My recollection is dim about how I handled it. I suspect that’s because it was emotionally painful. Although I had to see him prior to rounds every day, I think I excused myself as soon as he spat the word “nigger” in my face—which was practically every day. I told him I didn’t’ have to tolerate that.
In that situation, the silence was deafening and certainly not golden. This kind of insulting scenario was not common, but it was not the only one.
I wasn’t exactly shocked. I was born and raised in Iowa. While Iowa historically has been more tolerant of African Americans, I grew up hearing the word “nigger” and was called that enough times to become pretty sensitive.
I had plenty of positive experiences over the course of my medical school and residency years. But they never erased the memory of that incident.
That’s why the approaches recommended by Dr. Moser and Destinee are so vital today.