My Wife’s Awakening

This is not my story of racial awakening. It is my wife’s. I knew the truth from a young age, as I grew up in a lower-middle class town on Long Island with a significant black population in the 1970s.

My wife, by contrast, grew up in a Whitopia the likes of which I can only imagine. In her high school class of over 500 students, there was a single black — an African immigrant girl with an unpronounceable name who was such a rarity in the town that she became a sort of celebrity. Everyone wanted to be the girl’s friend, and they vied for her attention. In her early adulthood, my wife made assumptions about non-whites based on this lone, shy girl with whom she, and everyone else in her neighborhood, had a very genial relationship.

Fast forward ten years after graduation, and my wife had just completed her nursing degree, having attended community college part-time while working as a certified nurse’s aide in a hospital. About half of her aide coworkers were black, attracted to the field for the relatively great rewards and relatively easy entry. As for her nursing school class, it was just like her high school — lily white.

She tolerated her black coworkers and they tolerated her during her years as an aide. She even went so far as to consider a handful of them “friends.” But terribly needy friends, who borrowed everything from money to uniforms without any intention of ever returning items, repaying debts, or reciprocating favors. She often picked up one or more of her fellow aides on the way to work, which made them all late for the start of their shift because blacks do not operate on “white man’s time.” But only my wife would be written up for tardiness, as her black “friends” blamed her for causing their late arrival. She would also babysit for some of them from time to time, welcoming their unruly, foul-mouthed children into our home in the face of my bitter opposition.

Her awakening came after graduating with a nursing degree and assuming the title of unit supervisor. Now in a position of authority over many of the same black women she had worked with as aides and cautiously befriended, she became the enemy overnight. She was called horrible, insulting, racist names behind her back and even right to her face. She was defied and ignored by her black underlings when handing out assignments as part of her job. She was spit on, threatened, and on one occasion shoved into a wall by a huge, angry black woman who screamed at her in full view of patients and their families, calling her a “white whore.”

My wife’s career brought her into a number of positions in medical facilities, but everywhere she went, the story was the same: difficult, disagreeable blacks, chronically late and unreliable, defiant, and contemptuous of their white supervisors when they weren’t warring with one another on hospital grounds. The 11-to-7 shift, commonly called the “graveyard,” lived up to its reputation. Every time my wife had to fill in for some no-call/no-show non-white nurse or supervisor on this shift, I said a silent prayer that my girl would survive the night and return home unscathed.

Through the years, fewer and fewer native white Americans went into the nursing field. The change was especially acute among aides, many of whom were so poorly educated that it seemed impossible that they had actually passed the certificate course required by the state for employment. My wife became isolated, unable to maintain order among staff that was insolent, truculent, and emboldened by the lack of any disciplinary action for their insubordination. Toward the end of her career, my wife was very hesitant to interview hiring prospects with French-sounding names, having learned the hard way that Haitians, who flooded the field in the 1990s and later, were awful employees.

Far from proving to be the satisfying and rewarding career path she had dreamed it would be, nursing became a nightmare for my wife, due largely to that singular and unmentionable factor: race. She retired last year, jaded and disgusted with her field, especially her inability to manage an incorrigible demographic.

I’ve said it so often, partly in jest and in so many contexts, but it bears repeating again and again: Don’t get sick, don’t get old. Lord help you if you must trust your health and life to some heartless, indifferent non-white medical worker in the modern world.

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