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My Pen Is Mightier

After 9/11, I waited for The Moment.

I was only six when the Twin Towers fell, but even then I understood that being Muslim in America was going to be difficult. I imagined that a teacher would burst into my elementary-school class, point at me and scream, “Get out of this country, you terrorist!” I feared that my friends would look at me, wide-eyed, and never speak to me again.

Of course, everyday discrimination is not that dramatic. It lurks in the shadows of bureaucracy (as a child, having checked English as a second language on a form, I was forced to skip class to attend ESL sessions, although I read as well as my native-born peers).

Discrimination also hides behind well-intentioned questions. “Does your family think all Americans are infidels?” a kid once asked innocently; another time, a kindly patient asked, “So when are you going back to India?” (I’m not Indian.) Discrimination is like air pollution: unseen, ubiquitous and slowly poisonous.

Yet sometimes discrimination does emerge dramatically. In 2005, when I was in fifth grade, The Moment arrived.

A substitute teacher decided to go off lesson plan and have our class write “I AM…” poems. We would start, she said, by reading a sample poem aloud.

“I AM a Friend” or “I AM an Explorer” would have been reasonable choices.

Instead, she handed out a poem that began: “I AM a Muslim Terrorist.”

As I’d feared, everybody stared at me—but I was relieved to see sympathy in their eyes. They understood that feeling targeted was awful. With each line that we read, however, I grew more upset at the poem’s portrayal of Islam. The poem was written from the perspective of a young Muslim boy who fears that his parents will force him into terrorism. The boy sees them using guns to commit violence and worries that he too might someday commit such atrocities, because he too is Muslim.

Not only did the poem reinforce Islamophobic rhetoric about parental oppression and compulsion (which are completely antithetical to Islam), but it also suggested that Muslims are intrinsically violent. I felt angry that, because of this poem, my classmates would now automatically associate my religion with bullets and blood.

Despite her edgy choice, the teacher encouraged us to have fun writing our own poems.

“Use your imaginations!” she urged. “Write poems about roles you could see yourself filling someday.”

In retrospect, I wonder if her choice of poem and her easy pivot to a more lighthearted subject reflected unconscious attitudes born of colonialism and white privilege. She could come and go as she pleased, but I had to continue being me.

While my friends wrote poems about being game designers and football players, I wrote about feeling alone. My poem’s title: “I AM an Outsider.”

The next day our teacher Mrs. Grant returned. During recess, she pulled me aside and said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you—but I am so proud you used your words to take a stand. I don’t want you forget this. Your words have power. Never stop using them to do what’s right.”

Her words fueled my enthusiasm for writing and my decision to major in English literature in college; they’re also the foundation for my belief that, as physicians, we need to pay just as much attention to the dose and timing of our words as we do the dose and timing of our medicines.

In the years that followed, I was fortunate to have many other teachers like Mrs. Grant. They celebrated my differences as strengths and never asked me to assimilate or become something I wasn’t. Throughout my undergraduate and medical-school years I felt accepted and supported, thanks to the consistent efforts of the Diversity and Inclusion offices on campus.

Then, near the end of my intern year this past May, another Moment arrived to rock me.

Scrolling through an app for doctors, I came across an article describing medical schools noted for the diversity of their student bodies.

Yes, I thought, smiling. We’re finally being seen. We’re finally making it.

Then I read the readers’ comments:

“Great, more underqualified applicants.”

“Diversity worsens the physician shortage because women work for less years and hours.”

“How about the best candidates get in? How about skin color, sex and breast size don’t matter?”

“If I see the word ‘diversity’ ever again, I’m going to kill myself.”

The people making these comments were all doctors. Reading such bigoted remarks from people I’d assumed were dedicated to upholding the highest professional and ethical standards was shocking. Whatever happened to good will, kindheartedness and social justice?

The commenters framed their remarks as efforts to protect the quality of healthcare, but the underlying message wasn’t so noble. They were telling people like me that we’d only gotten into medical school because of special treatment—that our years of grinding away in labs and test-prep classes and volunteer shifts at the hospital were irrelevant.

This Moment made me worry again about how people viewed me. Now, though, I wondered if their eyes held not fear but derision.

How many of my medical-school instructors secretly believe that I snuck my way into a white coat? I thought. How many of them feel that I’m unworthy?

For months afterwards, I couldn’t bring myself to open the app. Just seeing the icon on my phone made my stomach clench.

“Words have power,” Mrs. Grant once told me. She didn’t have to add, “including the power to isolate, demean and depress.”

She also said to speak up—and so I will. I won’t bow my head like the model minority they expect me to be, quietly accepting the disrespect they deliver with one hand because I should be grateful for the benefits of the medical degree they bestow with the other.

If I were to respond to the doctors who scorn diversity, it would be to say “Thank you.”

By revealing their true feelings, these doctors have shown me how much work remains to be done within our own medical community. It makes me want to double down on reaching out to underprivileged communities, to ensure that the pipeline of diverse applicants is kept full to overflowing.

These doctors’ words have wounded me, but they’ve also reinvigorated my hope, because nothing inspires excellence quite like adversity. People like me have been traveling uphill since we were kids, and every boulder placed in our path gives us another opportunity to build our resilience, grit, determination and patience. The more we hear that we can’t make it, the more we will flex those muscles to keep climbing.

I wonder if those bigoted comments reflect a sense of being threatened. I have no desire to threaten anyone, just as I had no wish to seek revenge against that substitute teacher so many years ago. (My mom wondered whether we should sue her, but in all honesty, gaining my teacher’s recognition and finding a path to my passion for writing was better than any revenge could be.)

So, as odd as it may sound, I actually feel some gratitude to the people who give me reasons to push myself harder. Light cannot exist without darkness. To those who believe that I got here unfairly, I ask only that you first try to see me for who I am: a doctor who simply wants to heal and to do no harm, and who knows that serving our patients is the bond that unites us all.

An Oregon native, Tajwar Taher completed his English literature degree at the University of Washington. Working for AmeriCorps in underprivileged schools taught him firsthand the impact of race, equity and social justice on people’s lives and health. While studying medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, he followed his interest in elevating underrepresented voices as a facilitator for Write Around Portland. A second-year resident in the Rutgers-RWJUH Somerset Family Medicine Residency Program, he enjoys volunteering at local mosques and trying to read his baby daughter books (while she tries to eat them). Other published stories include A Sound Heart and Venting in Medicine is Understandable. Lack of Empathy Is Not. “I’ve always loved being transformed by words on a page–to become new characters, feel new emotions and go places beyond my lived reality. I hope my writing can inspire people to see past their own assumptions and be curious enough to connect themselves to and learn from others.”

I AM a healer
Of blood and flesh of any color

I AM a mender
Of the joints that bring me and you together

I AM a doctor,
I AM diverse, and
I AM a believer that mutual respect defines our worth.

Comments

15 thoughts on “My Pen Is Mightier”

  1. Sajitha MF Rahman

    Dr Taher….It’s a great piece to be read and shared with many colleagues..

    My Family Medicine training was in Detroit and currently, a faculty in FM in India…your words resonate with many of my experiences …as one of the few who chose to pursue my identity as a Muslim female physician and work my way up as an academic…your words have warmed my heart…

    Thank you!!!

  2. ‘we need to pay just as much attention to the dose and timing of our words as we do the dose and timing of our medicines.’

    Thank you for your patience, your rage, your creative expression, knowing when and where to share it.

    Powerful!

  3. Really beautiful piece. Reminds me of all the times i stayed quiet and shouldnt have. thank you for showing me that.

    1. Roger Schauer, MD (ret)

      Thank you for writing this incredible piece. Part of my training was in Detroit, two years after the riots. Unbelievably, but I don’t recall a single student in my class of 160 whose skin was not white, but fortunately some incredible food professors were not white.

  4. Muriel Lederman

    equitable medical care won’t be achieved until its root cause is eliminated and that cause is bigoted physicians

  5. Wow. This was a such a beautiful essay. It broke my heart and at the same time gave me hope. You should not have to carry the burden of using your voice to heal and illuminate the bigotry in medicine, but you do so with grace and courage. Thank you so much. Please keep writing and sharing. Your patients are blessed and privileged to have your care. Your fellow physicians are blessed and privileged to have you as a role model and colleague.

  6. Louis Verardo, MD, FAAFP

    Dr. Taher, the best response to ignorance is education. By your very example, you are teaching colleagues, patients, and others about you, your faith, and your chosen profession. That is all any of us can do.
    Hang in there.

  7. Thank you for following your teacher’s advice: “Your words have power. Never stop using them to do what’s right.” It is deeply inspiring to see how discrimination fueled your determination to succeed both as a doctor and as a gifted writer.

  8. Henry Schneiderman

    Great, great essay. Pitch perfect in tone and content. Glad you are my colleague in medicine, and as an American, and as a human being seeking to heal what is ill and broken.

  9. Thank you for this beautifully written piece. What a tribute to your teacher who inspired you to write! Those doctors’ ignorant comments are dripping with privilege and bring shame to our profession. Thank you for using your voice to speak out against this and I will do my best to do the same. I’m going to go read your other pieces now. Family Medicine is lucky to have you in our ranks!

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