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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 micro-stories 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.