‘Their Bodies Are Not Considered Their Own’: White Privilege in the Emergency Room

In her memoir, The Beauty in Breaking, Michele Harper writes about her experience as a Black doctor in the ER, exploring race, gender, justice, and healing in stories about her patients and her own life. In this excerpt at Zora, Harper recounts a time when police officers brought a young Black man in handcuffs into the triage area of the hospital and demanded that she examine him for drugs that they believed he had swallowed.

But for Dominic, it seemed somehow warranted, somehow a commonplace, that his rights as a patient should be tossed aside. I looked at him; his autonomy was so provisional. But then, had he ever had self-determination? Had he even been considered to have ownership of his Black body? There was no medico-legal reason for a doctor or a hospital to usurp his decision-making capacity, and yet, for some people, it was expected. In the face of these truths, we are reminded that for many people, their bodies are not considered their own. For those whose bodies are viewed as suspect and threatening, those bodies, at the preference of a more privileged body, could be manipulated, even assaulted.

But Harper refuses — stating that it’s illegal to force a medical examination on a competent adult — and the man is discharged and free to go. She also holds her ground despite her antagonistic resident, who tries to defy her.

I sat still at my computer, attempting to breathe in for a count of three and out for a count of six (or something like it), to dampen the disgust as my anger mounted — anger that my resident, my privileged, highly educated white female resident, had felt comfortable being so disrespectful as to dismiss my judgment on this matter; that she had felt she had the right to invoke what she deemed a higher authority: older white doctors who’d done the police’s bidding in the past or whatever voice happened to be on the other end of the line from Hospital Ethics.

I looked down at my hands on the keyboard, my slender, dark brown hands, dry from constant washing and dousing with alcohol-based sanitizer between patients. As I noted the contrast of my dark wrists extending from the cuffs of my stark white coat, I was reminded of which costumes in America, even in the twenty-first century, are seen as legitimate and which are not.

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