Terrorism: Guarding against prejudice

October 25, 2002

This Iranian-born physician makes the case based on personal--and painful--experiences after September 11.

TERRORISM

Guarding against prejudice

Jump to:Choose article section... My "Middle Eastern" looks made me a target Patients were guilty of insensitivity, too

This Iranian-born physician makes the case based on personal—and painful—experiences after September 11.

By Farrin A. Manian, MD
Infectious Disease Specialist/St. Louis

It started like any other day as I drove to work that warm September morning. I heard the bulletin about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. I rushed over to the hospital where—shocked like every other American—I learned that those crashes and the two others that followed were deliberate acts of terrorism.

Like other Americans, too, I had trouble concentrating on my work the rest of that day; television sets in patients' rooms and visitors' areas showed the harrowing images of destruction and death over and over. During the following months, however, the disaster affected me personally in ways I hadn't anticipated, reminding me how easily we humans—doctors included—can succumb to prejudice during times of fear and confusion.

I was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago. I went to an American public high school and university, graduated from an American medical school, trained in American residency and fellowship programs, married an American woman, and became an American citizen. I even signed up for the draft during the Vietnam War.

Although I'm proud of my Iranian heritage, I consider myself an American. To me, that word means more than a nationality. It implies embracing a set of ideals including the freedom to realize one's full potential regardless of race, religion, or social class.

Until September 11, I had never worried that my patients and colleagues might view me as anyone but a physician who happens to have been born abroad. Until then, I thought, my olive skin, dark hair, and beard didn't matter to most people I met. The few who were curious about my nationality often guessed that I might be Hispanic, Italian, Spanish, Jewish, Greek, or Turkish. Some, given my name, even thought I might be Irish. But after practicing in the same location for 16 years, I felt I had earned the respect and acceptance of my colleagues and patients, regardless of my looks.

My "Middle Eastern" looks made me a target

Shortly after the attacks, the news media were filled with comments about "Middle-Eastern-looking" men being singled out for security reasons. I began to notice that many of my previously bearded co-workers were now clean-shaven. Almost overnight the public had become uneasy being around men who looked like me. But I didn't worry; I still considered myself an American.

Later that month, while rounding in the ICU, I was jolted out of my naivete by a colleague who walked up to me and said in a loud voice, "Doctor, you should wear a sign saying you're not an Arab."

That comment, made in front of several nurses and other physicians, took me by surprise. I was offended, clearly unprepared for such a disparaging remark in my own hospital.

I noticed people in the ICU watching me as if I had suddenly been placed under a bright spotlight. I even heard some giggles. When I lashed back spontaneously, "How do you know I'm not an Arab?" this fellow seemed surprised by my reaction, and quickly changed the subject. I walked away frustrated and indignant. It seemed that I now looked like a terrorist. For the first time, I had become a foreigner in my own land.

That incident was only the first of a string of tactless remarks I endured over the following months. Most were probably meant to be humorous rather than malicious, but they were painful nevertheless. I recall arriving at a medical committee meeting late one afternoon, to be greeted by the word "terrorist" spoken by one of the members, which met with laughter from several others.

After several medical friends asked if anyone had harassed me for "looking like a terrorist," I was tempted to reply, "Only my fellow physicians." When they asked whether I was going to shave off my beard, I replied with a defiant "NO!" A few months after September 11, when I approached a physician at the hospital to inquire about a mutual patient, she said: "You always frighten me when you get close to me." I wasn't sure what she meant by this comment, but I was troubled by it.

Then another physician who overheard the remark walked up and said, in a voice loud enough to be heard by nearby nurses, visitors, and patients, "You'd better watch out; he's an Iranian terrorist." This too elicited giggles. Maybe it's time to require some doctors to undergo sensitivity training.

Patients were guilty of insensitivity, too

It wasn't only colleagues who displayed such tactlessness. While I was making rounds one morning, a patient I'd taken care of for some time pointed his finger at me and jokingly asked his roommate and visitors, "Would anyone want to get on the same plane with this guy?"

I was shocked by this remark, particularly since I felt that being his physician would have earned me some respect. I sensed similar unease among some of my new patients when I walked into their rooms for the first time. Of course most people feel vulnerable when they're hospitalized. But I wondered if the images of Middle Eastern terrorists repeatedly shown on TV and in newspapers were going through their heads as I approached their beds.

Outside of work, friends and relatives often reminded me that my looks had become a liability. My mother and sister begged me to shave my beard. My stepfather, a retired Navy officer, placed an American flag decal on the rear window of my car, perhaps as a declaration that despite my looks, I'm really a true American. These people all meant well, and were genuinely concerned about my safety. But the harsh reality was that I had become a suspect in the public's eye.

After more than a year, my friends and colleagues still wonder if I have difficulty getting through airport security, and they ask if I'm going to shave my beard.

I'm resigned to the fact that as long as the terms "terrorist" and "Middle Eastern" continue to be linked in people's minds, I'll continue to be the target of disparaging and humiliating comments—often for the sake of a cheap laugh. Should I laugh along with the rest, and appear unfazed? Or should I point out that such remarks hurt.

For now, I'll continue to care for my patients with honor and respect, and I'll remain a proud American. But the beard stays.

 

Farrin Manian. Terrorism: Guarding against prejudice. Medical Economics 2002;20:51.