Jennifer Dent Butler ’03, M.Ed. ’05 is a middle school counselor in the Philadelphia area. Her husband, Dr. Paris Butler, is an academic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania. In June, Jennifer shared her reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic, the discrimination her husband faces as an African American doctor and what it is like to raise biracial children in a nation grappling with racial injustice.
Part 1: Scrubs (6/8/20)
I have been folding scrubs for Paris for the past 13 years. I often remark to myself how grateful I am for the simplicity in design that makes folding them so very simple. Particularly once the infant and toddler clothes came into the picture, you know those tiny socks that make you lose your mind?! However, this past weekend in folding his scrubs from the past week, I was hit to my core. I knew it was going to come, I just didn't know what would be the defining moment that would clarify all of my words. Scrubs were the first.
Not to be unexpected, I’ve run the full gamut of emotion over the past week like so many others. Much like the stages of grief, I’ve been on a roller coaster-like cycle trying to process my thoughts and feelings about the state of our nation. The battles and conversations that have been taking place particularly over the last month are nothing new. Racism is very much a part of our nation’s history, and not just past history. The everyday lived experience of every single black and brown person I know.
Those scrubs. You may be wondering how a piece of clothing could bring about such a dichotomy of simplicity and complexity. For those that may not know, I’ve known Paris since I was 14 years old. We didn’t start dating until later when he was a medical student, so for the past 18 years, I’ve watched Paris put on scrubs to enter the hospital. Those scrubs have acted as a medical uniform, and sometimes as armor. You see, through my life with Paris, I’ve watched him wear them with the sense of tremendous pride as a surgeon helping others, and I’ve seen him wearing them with the sense of utter disappointment that no matter the good he wants to do and is called to do for others, some people didn’t want his help due to the color of his skin (and sometimes asked for a different doctor in certain areas of this country). They didn’t listen to his voice in the workplace, or there were seemingly different rules for more privileged, generational physician white men. That’s a part of Paris’ daily walk- systemic and institutional racial inequities that he grapples with on the regular.
There have been many days throughout our marriage that I wished he wouldn’t put those scrubs on. Take a day to breathe, process the death of a patient, enjoy an extra moment with family as he can so easily get busy with his next idea for a new manuscript or publication. But this past week was different. Since March, he has been putting on those scrubs and going into the hospital amidst COVID-19 to continue operating on some of the patients he holds in highest regard, those suffering from breast cancer. The fear of what this virus may mean for his own health, the health of us at home, and the general question of what the pandemic would bring was not going to keep him out of those scrubs to help his patients. Admirable to say the least. But this past week was different. Those scrubs held the weight of the world on his shoulders this week. As a black physician having to drive into the hospital during a pandemic with the added notion that he needed to continue working when the very essence of his identity was now the conversation of America? Those scrubs made me cry. You see, Paris is a part of me. His hurt is my hurt. I wanted so bad for him to be able to take the time to process, grieve, join a protest, do whatever he needed. But he kept pushing on through a very busy operative case schedule, joined countless meetings and calls to further support his residents and medical students of color, and continued to wear those scrubs.
I don’t have all the answers, and I know that it’s okay not to know. I began my journey of introspection and cultural self-reflection years ago as I embarked on becoming a counselor; however, that ongoing education remains a steady part of my own self growth. It is a life-long process to strive for cultural humility. I ask my white friends and family to lean into the discomfort you are probably feeling. I offer myself as a safe space to ask questions that you might feel worried about asking. I want to help you grow as well. Paris should not have to be the guiding force, like so many other people of color, to bring about changes in diversity, equity and inclusion. Be part of the change. To my black and brown friends, family, colleagues near and far/past and present, I am here and not staying silent. I see you, I hear you, and I will continue to stand with you and for you. Those scrubs made me cry for Paris, but I realize those tears were also for each of you that had to continue on over the past week in much the same way — praying and hoping that THIS time will be the time the conversation really forces change to happen. Paris is my person, my rock, my everything. As his wife, and for the family that I love so dear, I refuse to let things remain the same.
Part 2: A Picture (6/10/20)
A picture. A picture is worth so much, particularly when drawn by your five-year-old son. If you’ve never sat with a young child while they draw, I encourage you to do so and be an active listener. Ask questions. Ask what they are choosing to draw, how they determine what needs to be in the picture, applaud them on their use of detail, color etc. You can learn so much. This picture happened to come at the tail end of last week. His pre-K teacher asked the class to draw a picture of them helping their parents in some way. Eli seemed to quickly know what he wanted to draw. As I sat next to him, he shared that he wanted to draw helping Daddy out in the yard. As he drew, he described how he likes to rake and pick up sticks, and that he also wanted his sister to be in the picture as she often helps also. Then he began coloring and wanted to ensure that each person was “perfect.” Eli is so PROUD of his brown skin. He quickly colored his face, then went to Paris. We joked about how Daddy is lighter, but when he finally gets out in the sun instead of the hospital(!), he is the same color as Eli. Then he found what he thought was the perfect shade for Stella, and commented that as a family we use a lot of the colors! Young children see skin color as a rainbow of beauty. We should embrace and learn from their ability to see people. Since day one, Eli and Stella have heard that their skin is a perfect combination created just for them by God — part Daddy, Mommy, and all extended family ancestry. This picture to me beautifully demonstrates the desired worldview that all shades are valuable.
The picture stood out to me for another reason as well. I thought it was an interesting pick during this particular time as Paris so frequently has experienced microaggressions while out working in the yard, “is this your house,” or the assumption that he is just contracted help. Even an Uber driver that upon pickup didn’t believe that he actually lived here. In my reflection on Paris’ scrubs, I neglected to speak to the topic of white privilege. Why? It was purposeful. This picture brought a lot up regarding my own personal journey as well and I wanted the space to address it here. I was 22 years old when the term white privilege was first introduced to me during my counselor education. I am forever grateful to two professors at William & Mary (special thanks Dr. Day-Vines and Dr. Bryan!) who challenged me to grow in thought and perspective of my life experience up until then. I believe I am a better person, counselor/educator, and now parent because of it. You see, I don’t have to wonder if someone will stop me and make those comments when I am out in my yard. Because of the color of my skin, I carry a privilege that Paris and every person of color does not get. I don’t have the exhaustion of numerous microaggressions piled up that at the end of the day question whether you are good enough. I am a white woman. I don’t have to grapple with the systemic and institutional racism that black and brown individuals experience. I can walk into my workplace with the knowledge that my education, experience and performance are enough and seen for what it is. I married a black man, and my life experience has changed. Words shouted on the street, “race traitor,” strip some of that privilege away. I have biracial children. Being asked if they are “really” mine, strips a little of that privilege away. Or being looked at as a family by some that just seem utterly confused and potentially disgusted. These are but a tiny raindrop to an overflowing bucket that black and brown members of our society experience on the daily. But white privilege is real, plays into the systemic injustices being exposed, and I encourage my white friends and family that have not engaged in this discussion to take the time to do so. Again, I offer myself as a safe space for this conversation.
As I said before, I don’t have all the answers. But I show up each day. I show up and engage in the conversation around race in America, in particular in schools. I am no expert, but this is my space. I know kids, and I know how to talk to kids. So many are saying that our children are the future. Yes they are, and they have been for decades. But we have to guide them better. What I can say as a counselor and educator is that kids WILL talk about race if you provide a safe, culturally responsive space to do so. I have a renewed sense of hope each time I have a talk with my students (and with Eli) on topics surrounding race. We have to provide opportunities for children, both young and old to engage in this conversation. To learn about bias, and to interrupt it. When I was young we didn’t have words like “upstander.” Today, we have resources galore to work with this younger generation. As a white individual so casually shared with me the other day, “I can’t imagine having to explain to young children (pointed to Eli) about all of this going on.” I took a deep breath and told her that we don’t have the privilege of not talking about it. Many black and brown children by the time they are five have already experienced devaluation because of their skin color. Eli luckily has not yet experienced it overtly, but we know it’s coming.
That picture. The pride Eli has in his family and his skin color. Will you become a part of the conversation with our youth? Within your community? Take the time to pick up that culturally responsive book and read it with a young person. The dialogue that will ensue I promise will open your eyes to what this generation will be able to do. For Eli and Stella, and all of my present and former black and brown students I have checked in with over the last week, your courage is needed.