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Friday, September 2, 2011

Why I Speak Out

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds. 
 -Samual Adams

I remember it so vividly that it may as well have happened yesterday.  It is 3:00 am and I'm sitting on a tall stool at the lab bench trying to harvest lymphocyte cells from the lymph nodes of a cadaver kidney donor.  A bright fluorescent light is shining down where I've gently transferred the lymph nodes from the plastic urine cup to a clear round petri dish.  It's been six years since I've done this, but I remember them.  The lymph nodes look like little BBs embedded in a big glob of flesh colored fat.  Sometimes they are large, fat lumps protruding from the tissue, but these are small. I have to press down on the tissue with forceps to find them.

He who allows oppression, shares the crime.  
-Erasmus Darwin

She is standing over me, my trainer.  I'm new here.  It's my first time on call and we're here to perform the compatibility testing of this deceased donor against one of the patients on the kidney transplant waiting list.  I'm sleepy, and already wondering how I'll ever get used to this.

I attach a clean needle to the syringe and draw the translucent pink cell media in completely filling it.  The procedure is to use the needle to poke holes in the lymph nodes, then gently inject the cell media fluid into them so that the lymphocytes spill out of the holes into the petri dish.  Then the lymphocytes are collected and used for testing.  You know you've gotten some when the clear fluid spills out cloudy grey.  This process always reminds me of how my mother taught me to poke holes in whole canned tomatoes before cutting them up so they don't explode.

People who advocate freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground.  They want rain without the awful roar of the thunder and lightning.  Without struggle, there is no progress. 
-Fredrick Douglas

I've finished poking holes in one lymph node and as I'm about to flush out the cells, the needle grazes my latex glove grabbing hold of it.  I quickly pull it away and the glove releases making a popping sound like rubber band against my skin.  I have nearly stuck myself with a dirty needle, a cardinal sin for a lab technician.  "Don't do that!  This guy's black!" she barks.

A time comes when silence is betrayal.
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I am paralyzed.  I'm staring at her and I can't tell if my mouth has dropped to the floor or not but my head begins to swirl.  My heart is racing.  I'm confused, enraged, sad.  I know this is one of those pivotal moments in life where no matter what I do, there will be significant ramifications.  I say nothing.

As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence.
-Benjamin Franklin

I went on to work at that lab for a year, the "N" word being used regularly by the staff and administrators.  I was afraid to speak up.  I needed that job. And somewhere inside I wasn't sure I could handle being the only one to take on a pack of racists.  It was a miserable year.  I burned inside.  From the shame of not saying it was stupid and offensive.

A sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
-Abraham Lincoln

That was nearly 10 years ago but I still regret not telling her it wasn't OK to talk like that at work, or at least it wasn't OK to talk like that around me.  And to presume someone is more likely to have HIV because he is a black man.  I still regret not reporting them all to somebody that would take action.  Their revenue came from state contracts and public universities. Somebody must care.

I moved to Chicago about a year later.  On my last day they threw a going-away party for me and another girl who was leaving and gave us both monogrammed jewelry boxes from Things Remembered. Mine was 1/2 the size of hers.  Both were pretty but I was tickled by the overt message they were sending me.  We like you 1/2 as much as her.  Instead of filing a formal complaint I'd become a surly employee, not participating in any corporate events, escaping to the secluded DNA lab whenever I could.  They all hated me by then.

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I speak up when I am offended or when I observe what I feel are injustices.  I'm not stupid, I know that most of these beliefs and behaviors are deep-seeded, generations old.  And that my calling somebody out probably won't really make a difference.  But it keeps me from feeling that fire and shame inside.  It feels less bad.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of the colleagues, the wrath of their society.  Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.  Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.  Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
-Robert F. Kennedy.


  1. Gina thank you for the difficult, honest post.

  2. This is a great post, Gina. Beautifully written, and the quotes you chose to accompany it were just perfect.

  3. Fabulous writing. Also, my jaw totally fell to the ground when i got to the part where she said... well you know what she said... can't BELIEVE people actually THINK that shit much less SAY IT OUT LOUD.... AT WORK? ack.

  4. Thanks for the kind comments, guys! This is something I wrote about in a creative writing class back in 2008 that only my classmates read. I was reminded of it after the events of the past few days but looked high and low and couldn't find it. So, I rewrote it! Probably best. I think my writing has improved some since 2008 and would have likely been horrified to read it had I found it, anyway.

  5. You know what I love about the drama of garden blogging? In the fallout there is always something beautiful that emerges.

    After the ugly garden fiasco I was moved to tears by Colleen's post about marigolds. I turned me from someone who hated marigolds to someone who loved them.

    After this recent bought of drama with the garden writers comes your post and Gayla's.


    We should all fight more often.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. It's always nice to read about people's personal experiences. Even bad ones that you think shouldn't happen at all.

  7. a wonderful post about a horrible experience. I hope it will help shine light on the important roll we all have in sharing information that will help someone else.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. I think we all look back at events in our life that we could and should spoke out about (or at least I do). Be proud that you took this as a learning experience and now have the strength to speak out! Good for you!