“Are you a sp*c?”
First meeting, that’s how he greeted me. It landed somewhere in me like the first shot at Fort Sumter. Oops. Misfire.
I found him the new-fashioned way: Yelp. Reviews yielded a few red flags but nothing to indicate a pattern (a google search would reveal the pattern). Being a kum’yah (a northern transplant), I didn’t think to query the locals. So, blindfold snugly secured, I pinned the tail on the jackass.
Like a good co-dependent, I made excuses for him:
- “Nobody’s perfect”
- “There’s always gonna be someone to complain.”
I was persuaded by his 50+ years as a practicing physician in Austin. I tell myself that anybody who can stay in business for 50+ years must be pretty good. In fact, anyone who can do ANYTHING for 50+ years gets props in my book. So, I walked in there expecting “Little House on the Prairie”, but
Good night, John Boy,
I got Archie Bunker instead.
“Are you a sp*c?”
He didn’t say it like Archie, though. He said it with that sweet drawl that makes everything sound like its dripping with honey. When I moved to the Deep South, I learned some people can call you a “Meathead” and have you blushing from the compliment you think you’re getting.
Let’s just go ahead and call him Dr. Meathead. No, wait, that would be offensive to Meatheads everywhere. Lets call him Dr. XYZ, because he’s the end of a long line of crooked characters. And those at the end are the hardest to fall.
His office was charming. Cozy & hospitable, with four hispanic women behind the front desk. Dr. XYZ, came in to greet me just after his assistant put me in that little blue paper gown that’s deliberately designed to remind you that, here, in this place, you’re nothing special. You can be Santa Claus, but in that little blue gown with your ass sticking out, well, you’re vulnerable. So don’t move. The one with all the letters after his name has the power here. Dr. XYZ, M.D. waltzed in, stuck his hand out, and gave me very pleasant smile. Out of those shiny teeth oozed a scalpel so sharp you might not even feel it.
Now, this might pinch juuuuuuuuuuust a little:
“Hello, Mr. Liotta! Are you a sp*c?”
“Um. Excuse me? What did you say?”
That big ol’ grin on his face got wider, like a lie that thinks its a peacock, and he repeats,
“Are you a sp*c?”
“Did you just call me a sp*c?”
“You’re Eye-Talian, right? A sp*c.”
Suddenly it seemed Dr. XYZ was the one wearing the little blue paper gown, and his ass was sticking out like Santa Claus. And let me tell you, Santa really needs to get on that stair-master, maybe start walking a little, because every time he opened his mouth his butt grew bigger. Kinda like another guy who went by the name Pinnochio. The only difference being that Pinocchio’s lies grew out of his face. Oh, and also that Pinocchio was, you know, an EYE-talian. Which is kinda like a Sp*c. I mean, dago. wop. greaseball. sp*c. ni**er. Different flavors of the same hemlock.
“Are you stupid?” I asked him. “You have an M.D. and 50 years treating the public, and you don’t know that “Sp*c” is a derogatory?”
All of a sudden, Dr. XYZ did the most amazing thing: He turned into Mr. Bojangles, and started dancing all over the room. Bojangles with a sugary-waistline.
“I’m sorry. Did I offend you? I just meant “EYE-talian”. No harm implied.“
Whew! Really glad he cleared that up, because for a moment I thought he was referring to Latinos, which would most definitely offend his staff, a quartet of Mexican woman that all looked like somebody’s mother.
All standing there with their mouths hanging open, lower lips free-falling to the floor. Like the cannon ball dropping into the pit of my stomach.
BTW: Dr. XYZ’s area of expertise is oral health. Specializing in diseases that infect the mouth. No wonder he doesn’t want to retire.
Luke 4:23: Physician, heal thyself.
At that point I decided to give him a few, um, educational tips while he went scurrying for cover into the bathroom, because, you know, I’ve got this really hot Sicilian temper that is pretty scary to people that are not accustomed to the Sicilian temperament.
Yes, the Sicilian temper. It’s kinda a big deal, ya know 😉
But as I drove home, I realized I missed a precious opportunity. Sometimes gold falls out of the sky, but you mistake it for hail. Racism usually doesn’t present itself so blatantly. It’s usually more subtle, like a snake in the grass. Harder to confront. And here it was, in my face like a Scary Clown.
For years I’ve been talking about interrupting racism in its tracks. And here I was laying on those tracks, letting that train run right over me. When I got home, I ruminated:
What can I do to do to bring some LIGHT to this situation?
The “situation”: There is a great big lie growing across this country, causing a chasm from here to there. Every time a young black male is killed under “debatable” circumstances at the hands of a white man, the chasm grows like Pinocchio’s nose. We find ourselves perched on opposite sides of that chasm: losing balance, falling in. The truth slips through the cracks, and more people die.
Take note of all the clever meme’s on Facebook lately. Here’s one from today:
A policeman’s badge, with the words:
“BREATHE EASY. OBEY THE LAW.”
The delete button is the new trap door we press to determine which side of the chasm we stand on.
I’m trying to get out of this paper blue gown, so the next day, I called Dr. XYZ and tried to raise some awareness. But this guy is a pretty thick case. Insists his only “mistake” was that he didn’t know “sp*c” was a derogatory for latinos.
“This was a terrible misunderstanding”, he said. “Your name is clearly Italian, I thought sp*c was slang for Italian. I had no idea that it was a derogatory term for Hispanics.”
He assured me that he and his wife really find the Italian people lovely.
“I have been to Italy twice, loved it, wonderful country and people.”
Wow. Guess what, Dr. XYZ? You. Just. Happened. To. Run. Into. The. Wrong. Sp*c.
“Yes, I’m Italian, and my name is MISTER LIOTTA. Not “sp*c”. You refer to me as “Sir” or “Mister”. My father is a KING of a man, and he raised his sons accordingly.”
The next day, he met me at a coffee shop and called me “Mister”. I handed him a poem by RD Laing:
“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to
And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice,
there is little we can do to change;
until we notice how
failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.”
“What’s it mean?” I asked. He mumbled something that almost sounded like “white privilege”, but that might just have been my imagination. I illuminated him on my role as a public advocate and Diversity Facilitator. Lets just say I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse 😉 I persuaded him to agree to attend – and sponsor – a cultural sensitivity seminar that I will facilitate, along with a team of community leaders already doing inter-racial dialogue in Austin.
“I ain’t gonna study for it”, he assured me.
“Just don’t be late”, I told him.
For the past decade I’ve been bringing blacks & whites & latinos, and christians & jews & moslems together to try and bridge that chasm through dialogue. The best way to describe what happens there is petrichor: the smell of wet earth after a good rainfall. You want some of that?
We heal lies with truth.
Not a “justice”, “I’m right vs. You’re wrong” kind of truth, but the kind of truth that’s different for each of us. The kind of truth that lives in the core of our hearts. Something like,
“It really hurts to hear those kinds of words directed at me.”
“There are things I don’t understand about you, and wish I did.”
And here I am calling Dr. XYZ “stupid”.
Healer, heal thyself.
Within a few days, Dr. XYZ started turning into my Best Teacher.
I opened my eyes and saw his face looking back at me in the mirror. I noticed how I was judging the man. Making myself feel superior to him. Feeling angry toward him. I’d been referring to him as “Dr. XYZhole”. Then, it dawned on me: I have the same exact dis—ease that he has.
Exactly. The. Same.
That’s when the bow came off this gift. Hemlock comes in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. Here, have a taste of this arrogance: sometimes I think I’m free of prejudice because I’m prejudiced against the “bad” guys. Snakes are so clever!
This is a Trauma Bond that we share: locked together in the same cell. We’re bonded to each other through our shared history, and we’re still negotiating that bond. This is what we’ve learned so far:
This is not a “fire” that can be “fought” by fire. It can’t be doused with water.
This dis—ease is a fire each individual must be willing to dive into, regardless of what the next guy does. The house is on fire. This crisis is challenging us to be warriors, to run into that burning abode and become immersed. Shine that light on the darkest part of your own basement.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
We’ve seen this same illness eating up our world for thousands of years.
- The Crusades.
- The “Conflict” in the Middle East.
- The Civil War.
- Rich vs. Poor.
- Charlie Hebdo vs. Alahu Akbar.
It doesn’t go away. Every now and then a special person comes along: Jesus. Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. And then we go back into the trenches and slug it out in the name of the prophet. Alahu Akbar? I wonder how Muhammad feels about that? Not the cartoon Muhammad. The Merciful and Compassionate.
It’s too easy to become seduced into thinking I’m beyond it, above the “other” who I deem “ignorant” and in need of “education”. So, Dr. XYZ gave me a gift I’ll never forget. Nobody gets a “Pass Go” card in this game.
We will have a community dialogue between race, gender, and creed in Austin this February. Dr. XYZ will sponsor this, really, just to get me out of his hair. But what he’s done for me is remind me of the humbling truth: When it comes to my own prejudices and bias’, I’m standing around in a little blue paper gown, my butt sticking out, struggling – like him – to see past the lies slithering around in the grass of my mind.
Let there be light.
Thank you, Dr. XYZ.
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