“I want a metal doctor!”

Jender-Son is 2 and a half.  He loves to describe everything, and is very fond of adjectives.  It’s never ‘Oooh– cup!’, but always ‘Oooh– big big red and blue cup’.  We’ve always thought this was a thoroughly good thing.  Until today, when I was getting ready to take him to the doctor.  Coming out of his room he said “I want a blue doctor!”.  I told him there weren’t any blue doctors. Same with red doctors.  Then:  “I want a yellow doctor!”  Oof.  I began to realise where this might lead, thinking of the Indian doctor we were about to see.  What could possibly be more embarrassing, I thought to myself with horror, than a gleeful toddler yelling “Oooh– brown doctor!”  I found out in the next instant, as he began shouting “I want a white doctor!  I want a white doctor!”.  I started trying to explain to him that people get upset when you talk about what colour they are.  And thinking frantically about how to explain this further.  Then I breathed a sigh of relief as he began shouting over and over “I want a metal doctor!”   But it got me thinking about how tricky teaching all this to kids can be.  He’ll want to know why it’s great to talk about colours of everything but people, and I’ll need to find a way of explaining it while also making it clear that colour of people in *some* sense doesn’t matter at all.  But also that it does matter, because for a long time people have assigned significance to it, and that affects people’s lives in huge ways, and….  Why doesn’t he just ask me where babies come from??  That conversation would be easy!

19 thoughts on ““I want a metal doctor!”

  1. I don’t envy your situation, but you know, if someone gets offended because your toddler mentions the color of someone, then it’s that person who should be ashamed. He doesn’t ascribe any value to the color other than the recognition of the color itself. The only thing you might want to explain to your son is that he doesn’t get to pick the color: get whatever color of doctor his doctor happens to be.

  2. Two and a half is very young, but I suppose you might try to get some sort of news magazine and see how many different colors of people you can find. That might start to give him some idea of context, and also perhaps associations of skin color with a good sense of interest, enjoyment.

    Not sure what sort of attention span he’ll have for that.

  3. I agree that people who know about toddler development shouldn’t be bothered by “Oooh– a brown doctor!”. But many people don’t know kids all that well. And if I hadn’t seen how it developed, I might well have assumed that a toddler saying “I want a white doctor!” must have learned that from his parents. In addition, though, I do feel the need to teach him what one can and can’t say in his culture. So I think I do have to teach him not to point out skin colour, just as I have to teach him not to tell everyone all about his genitalia. Though I worry less about the latter than the former– probably because I have sympathy for those who are offended by the former but much less so for those offended by the latter.

  4. In case anyone is wondering, he had stopped insisting on a metal doctor by the time we got to the doctors’ office.

  5. There is a good book titled “I’m chocolate; Your vanilla” about this very topic Margueritte Wright. 2000

  6. It just seems like focusing on something like that too much may have the opposite effect than what you want to convey. It sounds like right now he doesn’t ascribe any meaning (negative or positive) to someone’s skin color, which I would think is exactly what you want.

    If you make it a point to try to add that emotional charge to it, he may not remember the social rules behind it, but he may remember the emotional charge, and sometime decide ‘what better a way to act out and get some attention? Ooo look how mommy reacts!’ In other words, he’s learning a new lesson: if you want to be transgressive, refer to someone’s skin color.

    But, then again, I don’t have any kids, so what do I know? ;-)

  7. Personal anecdotes: I have a ‘brown’ dad and a ‘white’ mom. They never told me anything about race or colour as a child. Consequently, I was completely oblivious to the whole thing until I was about fourteen. I had no awareness that people were considered ‘different’ from others because of their skin colour. I was highly confused by someone at primary school asking me if my mom was white and replied ‘No, she’s sort of pink’. Being oblivious to issues of race also meant that I just didn’t understand when people at school teased me because of my skin colour. I knew I was being teased, but I had no grasp of the fact that this was because I was different because of my skin colour. I think my ignorance of this meant that the teasing had much less impact on me than it would have done if I had been aware of racial issues.

    The metal doctor anecdote is totally hilarious.

  8. Do you know the “7-Up” series, filmed in Britain starting around 1964, and following the same group of children up until the present? In the very first film, the interviewer asks one boy (age 7) what he thinks of “coloured people”. The little boy says they sound horrible. Why? Well, he says, it sounds awful that someone could be blue or green or purple all over. I think this incident indicates the literalness of children with regard to skin colour, along with a genuine innocence about racial distinctions. When my own son, who is white, was around six, I had to explain to him in very simple terms about racial oppression, because he had seen a brown child being taunted and had been completely mystified as to what the bullies were talking about, let alone how to deal with it. He was anxious and worried about meanness to the brown child, but could literally not see anything about the child that was connected to the taunts. (From his point of view, the main characteristic of the child, who happened to be a girl, was that she was very good at street hockey.)
    I think this kind of naivete is encouraging. It shows very clearly not only that children must be indoctrinated to be racist, but perhaps also that they must be indoctrinated in order even to perceive what adults regard as obvious racial differences.
    Of course, thanks to racism, the brown child herself would have had a far shorter period of innocence.

  9. I love the metal doctor anecdote, too! But recently I’ve been involved in a workshop on equality with second-year medical students. And there was a lot of discussion about when one has a right to demand to see a particular kind of doctor. Nobody thought it was okay to demand a white or yellow (or metal) doctor, even though someone who holds deeply racist views might not respect a doctor with the ‘wrong’ skin colour enough to comply with treatment, thus affecting patient outcomes. Yet the right to see a doctor of the same sex is unquestioned.

    Along similar lines, there’s been a lot of debate in the UK recently about patients’ rights to be treated in single-sex wards (even though – I assume – whatever ward you’re in, there is a minimal expectation of privacy from all other patients when being examined or getting changed). I wonder whether it’s really such an important priority.

    So these are my questions…
    Are these desires to have medical care from, and in the company of, one’s own sex, sexist desires? Should we fight them in ourselves?
    Or is there something genuinely important about this desire, such that it should be respected, even if we want to reject many other ways in which sex is made important?
    Is the desire important enough to govern distribution of limited resources in building hospitals?
    If there’s a right to see a doctor of a particular sex, does it matter why the request is made? What if a particularly sexist man wants to see a male doctor because he doesn’t think women have the right kinds of brains to be doctors?

    Just curious to see what people think!

  10. Heg,

    Only speaking for myself, but I’m a guy, and I prefer female doctors. I’m also willing to admit that it’s a purely sexist position… I’d rather reveal intimate details of my health and life to a woman. That being said, I’ve never asked for a doctor of a particular gender, but I don’t blame anyone who does.

    Unlike with race, there are differences in social interaction between members of the same sex and members of the opposite sex, and some people may simply be less comfortable dealing with with those differences.

    And to those who would make a request for a male doctor based on bigoted beliefs… fine… leaves more smart female doctors for the rest of us! :-)

  11. Sheri– Thanks for the reference, will look for it! Monkey– wow, interesting to think that it might really be best *not* explain about the significance people attach to this stuff. Heg– fascinating question. Mulling over Pro’s comment, I started thinking that actually there often are race-based differences in human interaction. Of particular concern, of course, are those involving racism. And why shouldn’t a black person who’s been on the receiving end of all too much racism be able to request a black doctor? Why are we so much more accepting of a woman only wanting a woman doctor? Is it because there are some religions which might require the latter, and we want to accommodate them? I also realised how limited our acceptance of doctor sex preferences is. I wonder, actually, what would happen if Pro asked for a female doctor. I suspect the only acceptable request is for a same-sex doctor. And that one has to do it in a way which gives the impression that it’s about modesty. Would a woman’s request for a woman doctor be honoured if she said “I want a woman doctor because it turns me on”? I suspect not.

  12. Heg, there have been several studies and such which indicate that even today male doctors tend to minimize the health complaints and symptoms of women, even without intending to be sexist. For instance, they tend to write off women’s complaints of pain because they think that women just complain more about any ole thing. And then also many diseases and disorders don’t present exactly the same in women as they do in men.

    So no, I definately prefer a female physician and would seek one out if I needed a specialist.

  13. ‘Course, that’s assuming the female doctor doesn’t hold the same negative views of other women.

  14. Sports medicine in the US definitely had (still has?) a bias against women, with surgeons often taking female athletes’ complaints much less seriously than male atheletes.

  15. Good examples, Emily and LL. Though I really do share Emily’s follow-up worry. Women (doctors or otherwise) are by no means immune from sex/gender-based bias. I wonder if women really do get better treatment from women doctors. Actually, I do remember some recent study suggesting that they do. Maybe someone else will have a more specific recollection, perhaps even a reference!

  16. As for your original post, it’s just fine that your son was excited and asked for a blue doctor. There’s nothing wrong with him talking about the color of people’s skin. People come in a variety of tones and colors. If you are horrified by this, as you suggest, please notice that this comes from you and not him.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that people get uncomfortable when you talk about the color of skin. There is nothing wrong with making observations about people around you. He is finding out about the world. If you impress upon him at this early age that the fact that people come in various colors is a taboo subject when you’re out in public, you will probably create issues where there are presently none.

    If your son says, “Last time, we saw the light brown doctor and I don’t want to see him again because he hurt me with a needle,” there is nothing racist going on in his mind.

    Talking and asking about people’s various skin colors is normal for a child discovering the world. It is healthy and inquisitive to notice and talk about the things one sees. He does not mean anything derogatory by it. Best not to “load” the issue for him.

  17. Just to clarify: I didn’t think Jender-Son was doing anything morally wrong. But I did think it might be important to teach him not to go around shouting “I want a white doctor!”, and I wondered whether I should be teaching him not to comment on people’s skin colours– which is a bit of etiquette that probably he will eventually have to learn.

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