Like Cornel West [“Prisoner of Hope,” interview by Judith Hertog, September 2018], I have hope for our country.
I grew up on the edge of a small Midwestern town. My class at school had one African American and one Mexican student. I went along with the prejudiced views of my neighborhood, not knowing what prejudice was. I watched the Detroit riots on the news with my mom when I was young. I asked her why those people were so angry, and she said because they want their rights. I said, “Well, why don’t they just give them their rights?” She didn’t have an answer.
After reading the inspiring words of Camille T. Dungy [“Poetic Justice,” interview by Airica Parker, June 2018] and Cornel West, I acknowledge how much I still have to learn, as an older white woman, about racism, diversity, and inequality.
But I also remember that our struggle to balance human relationships takes place on an exploited, depleted earth, as illustrated in Michael Shapiro’s interview with Sylvia Earle on the alarming state of our oceans [“Sunken Treasures,” July 2018]. Everyone needs to work against injustice, but none of us can forget that, even if we erase all human conflict and inequality overnight — but otherwise continue life as usual on our beleaguered planet — we have failed. No matter how well we humans may get along, we are doomed if we don’t bring gratitude, respect, and reciprocity to the ways we relate to nonhuman beings.
Many people don’t have the resources to ameliorate the pollution and extinctions that are worsening virtually everywhere. Even so, I hope that, while addressing human problems, we can acknowledge the need to redefine our relationship with the natural world. I’m not interested in any social movement or spiritual path unless it is centered on the truth that humans are not superior to nonhuman beings and ecosystems. This may sound irrelevant to people working on issues of social and racial justice, but I continue to hold this conviction as the foundation of all that I do.
Zun Lee’s photos of black fathers and their children [“Father Figure,” September 2018] are the kind of real-life images of caring African American men that we need to see more of, especially in the media.
I cringed when I read Ellias Nsubuga’s and Mikael Henderson’s responses to Airica Parker’s interview with Camille T. Dungy in your September 2018 Correspondence. Both suggested that we should not see race, not recognizing that to do so would erase the racial identity, history, and lived experience of black and brown people in Western culture. We live in a world where race matters; denying it only perpetuates a culture of white supremacy. The burden to explain this should not be entirely on Dungy. White people like me must speak up as well.
Ira Sukrungruang’s essay “Maintenance Boy” [September 2018] was so bittersweet and beautifully written that I just ordered his book Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. Without The Sun it’s doubtful I would have discovered this talented writer.
Seven years ago I had cancer, which was treated with chemotherapy and surgery. So I immediately recognized the truth and beauty in Tony Hoagland’s exquisite essay “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer” [September 2018].
Tears were falling down my cheeks by the time I reached the end of Tony Hoagland’s “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer.” I am a retired nurse from a long-term-care facility. Having grown up in a mostly white, working-class neighborhood, I was not immersed in a diverse community until I became a nurse. Since then I have been privileged to work with individuals from all over the globe, of every color and religion. I have witnessed deep caring and compassion, with all prejudices set aside. Memories of my days on the job with those colleagues humble me. My coworkers saved me from the ignorance of perceived differences. I will always be grateful.
I was going to let my subscription lapse. I really was. Then I read “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer,” by Tony Hoagland. It was worth paying for a whole year of issues to read this one essay. I agree with Hoagland, who writes, “I believe, more than ever, that at the bottom of each human being there is a reset button.”
“The Cure for Racism Is Cancer” is one of the most irresponsible pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Tony Hoagland wishes America (though he makes it quite clear he actually means white America) would get cancer because it would magically make whites less racist to have to rely on ethnically diverse professionals in their hour — or week, or month, or year — of need. Diagnosing people with a life-threatening condition will not spontaneously cause them to change their racist ideas.
Racism is a serious problem, and we must continue to strive to overcome it, but to wish cancer on anyone is abhorrent. Stage-III breast cancer found me when I was forty-five. I, too, have ridden the merry-go-round of blood tests, MRIs, CT scans, and surgeries, with thirty days of radiation treatment and ten weeks of chemotherapy. It was hell. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, let alone an entire segment of society.
We are disappointed in The Sun’s choice to publish “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer.” The essay lacks an explicit awareness of the life-and-death consequences of racism in the U.S. healthcare system, which affects both minority patients and hospital workers of color. Cancer is very much not a cure for it.
Hoagland views cancer as the great equalizer and implies that all sick people — regardless of race, class, or whether or not they’re insured — get the same care. Extensive data refute this notion. African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate of any racial group in the U.S. for most cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. Hoagland is “stupefied” to discover that minority orderlies and nursing assistants are cheerful while tending to the intimate needs of his body. He might also be stupefied to learn that many do not receive a living wage for their labor.
To conflate illness and personal epiphany with true understanding is a harmful oversimplification that undermines the work others are doing to make our institutions less racist. The suggestion that cancer seems to erase differences perpetuates the fantasy of “color blindness,” which can lead to self-satisfaction and inaction. We are sorry Hoagland is ill, and while it may seem to be in bad taste to criticize a cancer patient writing from his own experience, we offer this response in the spirit of striving to be alert to our own and to others’ racism.
Tony Hoagland responds:
I write my essays, and poems, and I write them as well as I can. They are explorations for me, and they don’t seek to end conversations but to open and extend them. There is always something more to say on such essential subjects. Different truths and emphases coexist. One truth does not have a monopoly.
So it is sometimes disappointing to encounter rigidity of interpretation, and self-righteousness, and the addictive urge to reprimand others in our public conversations. The desire for the final word, to be Right, is an instinct toward absolutism, and a playful writer might say that such Moral Certainties end in “reeducation camps” for those found at fault. We are most alive when we remain unconstricted and fluid, not clenching and angry.
Now I have written my essay about cancer, and compassion, and race. I’m grateful to The Sun for publishing it.
So I say, let these other writers write their essays on those thorny topics, and let mine be what it is. And I bless them in their work. May they exceed and improve upon my efforts.