Color Me?

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Black and white photograph of surgery.

"Emphysema and lung cancer don't discriminate, we all bleed red, and when a surgeon cuts through our various skins our vital organs are all the same." Credit: CreativeCommons / Iulian Circo.

Growing up in the 1950s as a white person in an all white, mostly Jewish neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I had essentially no contact with darker complexioned people from different ethnic groups. It wasn’t until I started working in hospitals as a respiratory therapist that I began to have consistent personal contact with people of various ethnicities and skin colors both as co-workers and patients. In a society that emphasizes our differences, working in a hospital has brought me face to face with issues and facts that unite us all. In the context of human illness, pain and death, our nation’s long and tragic obsession with skin color seems absurdly superficial. Emphysema and lung cancer don’t discriminate, we all bleed red, and when a surgeon cuts through our various skins our vital organs are all the same.

In addition, in a somewhat curious way, my hospital experience provided me with a bridge between the poles of blackness and whiteness. For about twenty-five years, I have been wearing a white lab coat as part of my hospital attire. Only recently, in a sort of “the emperor has no clothes” moment, I realized that if my lab coat is white there surely must be a more accurate word to describe the color of my skin. I realized that, in fact, I’d never actually seen a white person. Upon further reflection, I also realized that I’d seen people in varying shades of brown but had never actually seen a black person.

So began my search for a more accurate name for my skin tone. I told my family, friends and co-workers to call me a “spaldeen” man, but, alas, as strongly as I identify with that glorious rubber ball of my youth, the consensus was that it’s much too pink to accurately describe the color of my skin.

So my search continues. Perhaps the answer lies in the lyrics to the song “Family of Woman and Man” that we sing in the New York City Labor Chorus:

Some are the color of peaches and cream,
Some of pumpkin pie.
Some are the color of banana nut bread,
Some of Russian rye.
But whatever the color you happen to be,
It’s plain as the back of my hand,
All of us are members of the family of woman and man.

Jeff Vogel is a retired respiratory therapist, New York-based labor activist and a member of the New York City Labor Chorus.