Moving Beyond Stereotypes

Chris Porter - Seattle, Washington
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, May 4, 2015
Chris Porter

Several years ago, when a patient gave Chris Porter a long stare, he thought the man was judging him because of his race or his profession. In reality, the incident taught Porter himself an important lesson about prejudging people.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: prejudice, race
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I live in a world and I am part of a society that has the lowest expectations for me. Images on the 6 o’clock news serve as a daily reminder that black males are to be feared and would mostly likely do harm to someone. I read how I would be lucky to live to the ripe age of 30 and chances are I might have been in jail. I am the father of several children with little or no means or interest to care for them. I am a black man in America. Nevertheless, here is the truth.

I am 49 years old, hold a master’s degree, and work as a nurse practitioner. I have never been in jail and have no children. The truth is that each day I want to be an example of good humanity. Despite the images and assumptions about me provided by the media, I have learned a great lesson that I carry with me each day when I introduce myself with “Hello, my name is Chris, and I am the nurse who will be taking care of you.”

About 15 years ago, I was working in an intensive care unit in Dallas, Texas. I was assigned to care for a 60-year-old Caucasian male who had suffered a heart attack. He was married and had children but seemed, at least to me, uncomfortable with me taking care of him. His condition was very stable, and he was due to be discharged from the ICU in a day or two. Each time I entered his room to gather vital signs or administer medications, he kept staring at me in an odd yet familiar way.

When I moved to Texas and began working in my profession, oftentimes, I would have trouble convincing people that I was a registered nurse. Some would assume I was a housekeeper or an orderly and assign me tasks common to those positions. Often I would hear “I have never been taken care of by a black nurse before.” Well, I was sure that this scenario was more of the same.

When I entered his room again to administer medications and to ask if he was having any pain or discomfort, he continued with the familiar stare. I decided to remove the awkwardness of the situation by asking him if there was something he wanted to ask me or say to me, and he said:

“I was just thinking that I had a son who died when he was 18 years old, and his name was Christopher. Today, he would be about your age, he was tall, he was about your height, and he wanted to be a nurse. I was wondering if he would have been the kind of nurse that you are and where he would be working and what he would be doing. I have not thought much about this until I met you this morning.”

Not prepared for this, I asked how he died and how many years has it been. I then excused myself to go to the bathroom to cry.

This story serves to remind me that the world is not always cold and mean—that many things are not always as they seem. I believe that there are people who can see beyond color and stereotype to see the person. It serves as a reminder to me to enter each situation as a unique experience and to examine my own stereotypes and assumptions.

I believe that others have already defined much of who I am supposed to be, and I have spent a great deal of time running from that definition. I believe that there comes a time in everyone’s life when he or she must speak up and address stereotypes and assumptions because they are easier to believe than the work it takes to discover the uniqueness of the individual. That time began for me 15 years ago, and I am dedicated to being a better human being today than I was yesterday. If I begin with myself then I have the power to affect all that I meet.

That experience instilled in me the belief that if I take the time to listen, people will lower that shield that often takes days, weeks, and for some, years to lower and share in a way that changes the listener. I believe that each person I take care of has a unique story to tell, and if I am focused and ready to listen without assumption and stereotype, they just might share their story.

Chris Porter wrote this essay several years ago when he worked at Baylor University Medical Center as an Intensive Care Nurse. He and his spouse now live in Seattle, Washington, with their Cocker Spaniel, and where Mr. Porter is a nurse practitioner in private practice. Mr. Porter enjoys cycling, cooking, and gardening. One of his greatest accomplishments was completing a bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where, he says, the coast was beautiful, but the mental clarity was life-changing.