It may be hard to imagine that people can distill their thoughts on a topic as complicated as race into just six words. But thousands of people have done just that for The Race Card Project, in which NPR host/special correspondent Michele Norris invites people to send in their microstories about race and cultural identity. Respondents submit their six-word stories via Twitter, on postcards or online and, every so often, Morning Edition teams up with The Race Card Project to share one of those tales. You can find hundreds of six-word submissions and submit your own at www.theracecardproject.com.
Our latest story involves an image that should be familiar to anyone who has traveled America's highways: that sign on the side of the road that warns drivers to keep within the 55 mph speed limit. That's the image that immediately popped into Dr. Gregory McGriff's mind when he heard about The Race Card Project.
McGriff, who lives in Rutherfordton, N.C., was sitting on his front porch, listening to a podcast of NPR's Talk of the Nation. He was intrigued by the six-word exercise, so he picked up a piece of paper and wrote down "55 miles per hour."
The last words didn't come to him immediately, so he fiddled with several combinations until he settled on one sentence that met the six-word limit: "55 mph means you black man."
McGriff didn't stop at just six words. He also submitted a short commentary to explain his six-word story: "I am an Ivy League graduate and a board-certified medical doctor. The subject of race comes up all the time, but the conversation that should follow is usually very short. When I see the speed sign on the road announcing 55 mph, I know that posting is meant for me. My white counterparts proceed a bit faster."
For McGriff, 55 mph is a metaphor for several things in his life. It does, indeed, apply to his driving habits. As a grown man, he is still careful to follow advice he received as a young boy — to avoid any kind of behavior that would bring him to the attention of police.
But in a very candid interview, McGriff says that 55 mph also represents a cautious mindset that guides his professional life. Why? He says that sometimes his success or even a display of professional confidence can make his colleagues or his patients uncomfortable.
To explain, McGriff shares a story about a recent complaint he received. A patient's family was upset that he had communicated with them in medical language that was foreign to their ear. They told the hospital that McGriff has been acting "uppity."
McGriff says that he wishes encounters like that would provide teachable moments, but that discussions about race are rare in his workplace.
"I think when there's an obvious issue that would help us be better physicians, to be better people, to be better friends, I think it matters. I think we should talk about it," McGriff says.
But while the doctors perhaps don't talk openly about race, the patients are not always as shy about the subject. As a black doctor in a largely white community, McGriff says he has to work harder to win his patients' confidence or even the ability to stay in the examination room.
"There are plenty of times when I walk into a room, and the first time, you know, the first comment is, 'Well, he's black.' "
After a wide-ranging interview, McGriff sent an email further clarifying why he has adopted his 55 mph philosophy. He says he doesn't necessarily see it as burden.
"55 mph reminds me to be excellent all the time. Wear a tie and white coat each day, rather than the scrubs my partners prefer," McGriff wrote.
"There's a thin line between 55 mph and 'step and fetch.' I am always glad to excel at the former without devolving into the latter."
While McGriff says he is forced to do things most other doctors wouldn't necessarily do, he also notes that the disparity — while seeming unfair — has served up a bit of sweet irony: It has helped make him a better doctor. At a time when cost-cutting and understaffing place pressure on physicians to move swiftly through their rounds, McGriff adopted a bedside manner to earn a patient's trust that has now become his signature at Rutherford Regional hospital.
"I make a point to do something that many of my partners don't do — most physicians don't do anymore. I sit," McGriff says. "I sit in the room, and I ask the patient to tell me their story. I'm really interested in these stories, by the way, and every client I meet has a very interesting story.
"But once I get their history and they're finished, I conduct a brief but thorough exam. And this may take about 20 to 25 minutes," he says. That's given him a "well-deserved reputation" for being one of the slower physicians, McGriff says.
"But what I can't do is, I cannot walk into the room, announce ... 'I'm your doctor and I'm going to put you in,' and do a superfluous exam," McGriff says. "My partner might be able to get away with that, but I cannot. And so with each and every encounter, I'm aware that I have to go a little bit slower, have to communicate a little bit more to make up for any perceptual problems."
McGriff lives in Rutherfordton with his wife and 13-year-old son, an eighth-grader who will soon learn how to drive. Already, McGriff is having "the talk" with his son, gently reminding him that the rules might be different for a young black man, and advising him to never, ever do anything that would attract the attention of police.
When asked if he will also suggest that his son temper his drive to succeed with a 55 mph mindset, McGriff says he hopes a day will come when that advice is not necessary.
But while he calls himself an optimist, McGriff says that day is still not here.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's hear another installment of the Race Card Project. That's a project curated by NPR's own Michele Norris. It invites people to send in six-word stories about race and identity. And when they compress that complicated subject down to those six words, it is amazing what you hear. We unpack some of those stories once again, here on MORNING EDITION; including this six-word essay from North Carolina.
DR. GREGORY MCGRIFF: I'm Dr. Gregory McGriff, and my six words are: 55 miles per hour means you, black man.
INSKEEP: Fifty-five mph means you, black man. Those are the six words he sent to NPR's Michele Norris, who's with us once again. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: Provocative statement, there.
NORRIS: And there's a lot in that story. He's calling up an image that we're all familiar with. We've all seen that 55 mph sign on the side of the road. When Dr. McGriff sent in his six words, he actually was listening to a member station in North Carolina, WFAE. He went to the website, knew immediately what his six words would involve, 55 mph. And to help us understand what he meant by those six words, he sent in a little additional commentary. Let's listen to that, quickly.
MCGRIFF: I am an Ivy League graduate, and a board-certified medical doctor. The subject of race comes up all the time, but the conversation that should follow is usually very short. When I see the speed sign on the road announcing 55 mph, I know that posting is meant for me. My white counterparts proceed a bit faster.
INSKEEP: Wow. That is a powerful statement. Why does he think 55 miles per hour is directed at him, as an African-American?
NORRIS: It's a metaphor for a lot of things in his life. And to sort of understand who he is, let's just talk a little bit about him. He now lives in Rutherfordton, N.C., but he's a native of Hartford, Conn. He studied economics and pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania. He went to medical school at Wake Forest; did his internship at Yale, his residency at UConn, University of Connecticut.
INSKEEP: Impressively qualified guy.
NORRIS: Very qualified. And based on that resume, you would think he would be a real high-flier and yet, he says that he has to move through life with great caution. He moves through life slowly - whether he's on the road, or whether he's practicing medicine - because he says that any kind of display of professional confidence, or sort of an overt display of success, makes his colleagues or even his patients uncomfortable.
MCGRIFF: Fifty-five is slow. If you have to do 55 miles per hour all the time, you're not going to get very far. And if you look around, everybody else is going a little bit faster.
INSKEEP: And you actually hear him moving slowly in this conversation, picking his words carefully.
INSKEEP: But let me ask, Michele Norris: Is he being held back by other people, slowed down by other people; or is he slowing himself down?
NORRIS: Well, to hear Dr. McGriff tell his own story, it sounds like it's a little bit of both. He moves with great caution, but he says he has great reason, and he shared a specific story that he says helps illustrate this. When we contacted him, he had just had an experience. He was called into the office of a hospital administrator - the hospital where he works, in North Carolina - because someone had issued a complaint, a patient had issued a complaint. The patient had said that the doctor had used language that was foreign to them.
MCGRIFF: A family was upset with me because I was uppity - he said words that we didn't understand. And this is something that I'm sure none of my partners - because I asked them; they've never gotten that particular complaint. And so it's never my desire to be uppity. It's my hope, rather than be condescending and speak down to anyone, is that to just speak in natural language.
And if there's a word or two that's a little bit above your vocabulary, it is not because I'm better than you. It is not because I have more education, and I'm certainly not trying to lord my intellect over you. I'm simply trying to communicate.
INSKEEP: He used the word uppity. That's a loaded word. The suggestion is, he's being told he's trying act above his station. He's not behaving the way that he should behave.
NORRIS: Displaying too much ambition.
INSKEEP: And there is a long history of using that word and that phrase, a long discussion about it. So he's saying that he has to communicate with patients differently, he believes, because of his race.
NORRIS: You know, he keeps talking about "my white counterparts." But in that, he's talking about the other physicians who practice at the hospital. And he says all of this forces him to, in some ways, operate almost in another lane; to practice medicine differently. And I asked him about that - this sort of broad, 55-mile-per-hour metaphor; how it applies to him specifically in his medical practice. And this is what he told me.
MCGRIFF: I walk into a room, and the first comment is, well, he's black. And I became aware...
NORRIS: Do they say that out loud? Do they say that to you, or to their family members?
MCGRIFF: Well, the beauty of medicine is you get to meet old people, and so demented patients will have their guards down and usually will tell you what's on their mind. But I've had a few not-demented patients ask me to leave the room because I was a minority. I don't take it personally. This happens sometimes.
NORRIS: How do you process that?
MCGRIFF: After years of experience, the initial anger that I used to feel, that would last for hours, now I compress it into a fleeting, brief moment; and then I just move on.
INSKEEP: That's painful to listen to.
NORRIS: He moves on but obviously, that moment still lives inside of him. And here's the irony in all of this, Steve. Dr. McGriff says that having to move slower, having to practice medicine differently, has actually made him a better doctor. He works at a hospital. He is an admitting physician out of the emergency room. And so he practices medicine in a manner - or using a bedside manner that has now become his signature.
MCGRIFF: I make a point to do something that many of my partners don't do, and most physicians don't do anymore. I sit. I sit in the room, and I ask the patient to tell me their story. I'm really interested in these stories, by the way. But once I get their history and they're finished, I conduct a brief but thorough exam. This may take about 20 to 25 minutes.
And so I have a well-deserved reputation as being one of the slower physicians. But what I can't do is, I cannot walk in the room, announce that I'm your doctor, and I'm going to put you in. My partner might be able to get away with that, but I cannot.
INSKEEP: The amazing thing here, Michele Norris, is he sounds like exactly the kind of doctor you would want.
NORRIS: Yeah, yeah. We always hear about doctors who are just zooming through the - you know, the room, taking your vitals, and then he's out the door. That's not Dr. McGriff.
INSKEEP: And they're pressured to be that way by insurance companies, by demands for efficiency, but he ends up doing his job better. It's amazing that a little bit of pressure would actually - he'd respond by being a better person.
NORRIS: You know, and this is a case where it obviously affects him. It's deeply painful, but it's also one of life's delicious ironies.
INSKEEP: Michele Norris is curator of the Race Card Project, which has taken thousands of six-word stories from Americans, including Dr. Gregory McGriff of North Carolina. Michele, thanks for coming by.
NORRIS: It's always good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can hear more of Dr. McGriff's story at npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.