Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Forgiveness and fear in Danticat's "The Dew Breaker"

In The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, we see a troubled Haiti. Like most countries with a selfish government, we see a president who treats his citizens in the worst possible way. The president feeds his people suffering, torture, muteness, and a gigantic dose of fear and hopelessness. He has no tolerance for “betrayers,” even among his own camp. He has macoutes, the people who loyally serve under him. The macoutes, in display of their own corrupt power, institute within their community a set of atrocious behavior against their own folks. When, for protection, the president and his wife later flee their leadership position, the orphaned macoutes start getting a taste of their own treatment. The formerly silenced people in the community start killing the macoutes in very terrible ways, for example, burning them alive and all the kinds of behaviors you can expect when the latent anger of the people finally explodes in all the splendor and rage of a volcano.

The character of most interest to me is Ka’s father, one of the worst of all the macoutes, who took torture to a whole new level of ingenuity. He was a torturer of the worst kind, playing mind games with people, giving them a false hope of release /comfort only to torture them even more.

The thing that interests me in this character is the way his story is told. His story begins when he is a reformed man. He has a daughter, an artist named Ka, or “good angel,” and a wife, Anne. He has a loving family, and he is an all around loving dad, who is, however, haunted by the memories of some horrible past. At first, he seems to be a victim, the “prisoner” in a sage war. Then we find out that he isn’t the victim at all; he was the one that inflicted pain on people--he had been the monster. The nightmares he has are of his own terrible actions. The reader is then distracted by the story of others, of people on both sides of the emotional and political war.

Then in the final installment of the story, we learn more about him, the man who made torturing people into an exotic game. We learn about how horrible he had been, how his surviving victims still live in shocked silence about the horrors he put them through. Still, despite his terrible actions, I could not help feeling pity and sympathy for this macoute. His crimes, the horrors he committed were told from the standpoint of the past, to give the impression that he is not that way anymore. We learn about his past, about how he was recruited as a macoute, how he had lost his family structure, and how he had helped to restore his family’s home with his newly found “power.” I was not as judgmental and critical about this macoute’s actions, because the narrative demanded that I hear his story as well. I could not be so angry and put off by his crimes that I should refuse to hear his story. I admire Danticat’s ability to humanize such a monster, to make one sympathetic to him. The narrative seems to drive the message that given the right condition, there is a monster (big or small) in each of us.

Sometimes, behind most torturers is a victim in hiding. This is somewhat true in this story. This macoute’s family was torn apart when other macoutes had claimed their home for themselves. His father consequently ran mad and his mother disappeared. His sense of himself, of his security must have chattered with his family's breakdown. So Ka’s father does not fall neatly in one of the two categories of victim or perpetrator. He is in the middle, inhabiting both. But can this really exist? At one point, wouldn’t taking the role of perpetrator outweigh any sense of victimization that might have precipitated one’s perpetrator self?

The macoute’s final mission is to kill a preacher, a man who had been using his sermons to inspire rebellion against the government. We learn about the preacher, about how his wife was poisoned because of his political sermons, about how he had lost a younger brother from his previous place of citizenship, and we experience his courage. The macoute publicly captures the preacher, who is then put through all sorts of torture and beating as he is driven to the prison, to casernes, the place of no return. Then in an interesting twist, the macoute learns that he had disobeyed, that he was supposed to kill the preacher instantly, instead of arresting and torturing him to death and thereby making him a martyr. So they want him to release the preacher and warn him to desist from preaching any politically charged sermon. In the final interaction between preacher and macoute, there is violence. The preacher marks him—pierces his face with a sharp piece of wood, thereby scarring his face. The macoute in return shoots the preacher with his gun.

Seeing the pool of blood and the unnatural way that the preacher is positioned on the floor, the macoute runs outside and starts to puke. Why? He has seen worse things than this! Or maybe because this is a preacher, he feels some special remorse for killing a man of God. I love the preacher's last thoughts about the significance of the mark the macoute must now carry for all to see. The narrator puts it beautifully, "Whenever people asked what happened to his face, he would have to tell a lie, a lie that would further remind him of the truth."

This mark seems to be the macoute's saving grace, the inspiration for his remorse and repentence. Every day he looks at himself, he will see and remember his grave actions--this is enough to prompt most people to change, because one is unable to avoid confronting one's terrible actions. Surprisingly, the macoute all of a sudden wants comfort, he wants someone who is going to comfort him. Why this need? His disobedience now on two levels (that is, failing to kill instantly and then killing when told to free) would probably also make him the target of death. Maybe he was now facing issues about his own mortality. A catholic, maybe he was thinking about the judgment he would have to face, and the hell he would have to go through. In the midst of his bleeding face and his desire for comfort, he meets a girl, the preacher’s stepsister, who has been running like a crazy woman, trying to find her brother. She runs dead on into him on the road. She is determined to go into the prison to inquire about her brother, but he convinces her not to, since people who go in there never come out. They head to his place… He later tells her that he is free, that he has “finally escaped,” implying that he was a prisoner, which in some sense he was. Now this macoute and the woman are the parents of Ka.

Some have praised The dew breaker as a story that shows the power of forgiveness, of the love in the human spirit. I agree, but I also believe that this story reveals something a bit more profound.

This story left me asking what forgiveness truly is. How does it display itself? If you find out that the only person you love, the only person you have in life or feel secure in is the same person who killed your family, what would you do? Which is a worse life, living with this loved one despite his crime, or abandoning him and living each single moment crippled by the horrors of one’s life? It seems a bit easier to pardon, to overlook the beloved’s past actions and cloak it in the color of the past. But is this forgiveness?

I imagine that forgiveness would rid one of fear, of guilt, and maybe even give one a sense of pride that one has risen above a most difficult challenge. So is Anne’s continued relationship with her ex-macoute husband that of forgiveness? No, not entirely. Both Anne and her husband are very fearful of being discovered (and this is understandable, since there are people seeking the heads of macoutes). More importantly, Anne harbors shame and guilt in her heart. She is overly concerned about what her daughter thinks of her decision to stay with her husband, and I think this reflects her disbelief that she could still continue to love such a man. It seems Anne is apologetic for loving such a husband, and this betrays the falsehood in the idea that her continued love for her husband is motivated primarily by forgiveness or love. We see that Anne is momentarily speechless when her daughter asks her, “Maman, how do you love him?” She even acknowledges that the cliché idea that “atonement, reparation, was possible and available for everyone,” is useless, and she seems to see it more as a tool to overcome the uncomfortable silence in talking about her relationship with her husband.

She and her husband do not think about each other’s lives before they met. The husband did not tell her the truth, incomplete as it was (he said he handed her brother over to someone else), until after they were married and had Ka. The couple never admits to the true story of what they were, of the role they each served in the war of their lives. The husband does not consciously admit that he had killed her stepbrother, and Anne does not consciously admit that her husband had killer her brother. Both of them instead choose to believe that the preacher had set fire on himself, in the prison, as news later reported. It seems they exist in a public sphere of denial. They dance slowly and sadly around a lie that is veiled in a layer of truth while praying that no one would expose the veil. Anne seems to carry the burden of their relationship on her shoulder. She carries his secret and her secret knowledge about who he was, while the husband seems free and unbothered, except in his dreams.

In a relationship such as this, at least as presented in this story, forgiveness is not the only factor. Certainly, forgiveness is needed in order to allow one to focus on the good and the present, rather than the past and the bad. I believe that the other factor holding this relationship together is fear. Fear that one’s world can be so terrible. Anne by embracing the world that is so fearful and horrible hopes to be protected from it. Her husband, by embracing one to whom he can expect hatred and disgust, by having her love and loyalty, seems to absolve himself of the horrors he had done--he has taken on her innocent face and discarded his marked one. It is only through Anne’s love that he finds forgiveness and remorse for his past actions. She is the one who is constantly praying, and she is the one who is always looking over her shoulder and over her husband's shoulder.

This story explores the very instinctual and basic parts of our selves: the desire to survive. In Ka’s father, we see his struggle to survive (to feel safe) in his threatening physical world, by becoming one of the dominant and ruling team. When he starts to lose hold of this power, his emotional world comes crashing down, and he takes as hostage and redeemer, a victim of his past behaviors. In Anne, we see a woman faced with the horror of watching passively while her family dies. She finally finds love, finds some sort of security, and she struggles to survive mentally and emotionally by embracing, protectively, this only solid, formerly corrupted, lover of her life. As the text says, “it was a more strange kind of attachment, yet she could no longer imagine her life without it.” To lose this love was to realize her worst fear come to life. It is choosing between two evils: to love her husband, believing that the monster within him is dead, or to hate her husband, believing that the monster is still alive to scare her. It is easier to see the monster dead. And in here lies her tremendous capacity to forgive: her ability to believe that the monster is dead.

The macoutes all had wives and children who loved them. While the macoutes are now being tortured and hunted, the loved ones cannot stop the hunting, for they see the justice in it, but they protect their guilty one because of the life they had built together. There is forgiveness, but there is also desperation. Which one came first, desperation or forgiveness? I think it is the latter. Does it matter? Ultimately, no.

I am still digesting Danticat’s book. But so far, she reminds me of the power of the mind. It gives power to a woman to fight a bear to save her child; it gives power to lift a car to save her child. It also gives power to withstand even the most terrible of horrors. It seems also that this power can allow one to psych one’s self, in order to make one feel safer in one’s self and in the world.

The mind is so powerful because it is so fragile. It is like a little child wrapped up in layers of armors of various complexities. We are our minds, and the mind, it seems, can do anything to protect itself, to allow it to live relatively peacefully and happily.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Why do people read fiction?

I once told someone that I had written a novel, and she said, "Oh, I don't read novels," in that oh so condescending way. And I answered, "What do you read?" "Oh, I read non-fiction. My shelf is filled with lots of non-fiction that I can curl up to after the end of a long work day." "I see," I said with a smile as I thought, "That is me with my novels."

If you exclude my science, health, and psychology books, my major reading pool is from the genre of literary fiction. For me, non-fiction is supplementary reading; it fulfils a specific role: to inform me of the facts of an issue. For the life of me, I cannot imagine my life exclusively on the non-fiction realm. I think I can even go as far as to say that if I had two books covering, for the most part, the same issue, except that one is a novel and the other is a non-fiction literature, I am pretty sure I would read the fiction first. Even James Frey's memoir/novel was suddenly more appealing to me once I found out that there was quite a bit of fiction in it.

Why do I read fiction and why do I prefer it? Fiction is not an escape for me, even though it certainly can serve that role sometimes. Fiction allows me to interact and engage reality in a way that I cannot do for non-fiction literature. Consider my reading of two books with a somewhat similar issue. Reading “As Nature Made him” by John Colapinto, a non-fiction, I was so consumed by the pain and trouble of the main character to really engage the issues as much as I would like. But reading "Middlesex" By Jeffrey Eugenides was different. Knowing that it was a novel, a creation of another mind, allowed me the chance to create. With "Middlesex", each sentence was not set in stone. I could question why a sentence was written a certain way or even why the story was written a certain way. This allowed me to readily dissect the issue of the story, to see the role of each player, and to see how the characters could have acted differently to ensure a better outcome. However, with non-fiction literature, I cannot play as much (at least, my mind thinks so). Fiction allows me to read non-fiction in a more productive way.

I would like to think that there are some people who feel the same way as I do. If not, why is there a genre called Creative non-fiction, non-fiction that reads like fiction?

Fiction writers create something from what already exists (yes, even in sci-fi books). And I read fiction because it gives me permission to create as well. The writer may see his/her world as blue, but I am allowed to see it as periwinkle blue, or blue with a splash of lavender. With fiction, I am not just watching (as I feel that I am with non-fiction), I am also a participant, a fellow creator. As a result, I too have responsibility for the life of the book. With fiction, I am not limited to the point of view of the writer. I can disagree, I can acquiesce, and I can do a mixture of both. The result is that the book exists on a richer level in my mind.

Reading fiction more readily promotes a crossing-over--a chance for the reader and the writer to exchange parts of their worlds, which gives you a slightly different story world, and one that is grounded in the world of the writer and the reader. It is no wonder that any particular fiction has a somewhat different meaning to each reader.

Fiction is an all-access pass to the reality that a book addresses. If the writer’s world is a scary or troubled one, the fictional world gives one a shield that still allows one to explore the full breadth of it.

There you have it--this is why I read fiction.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

My visit to BookExpo America (BEA)

The 2006 BEA started yesterday and will end tomorrow. It is the biggest book/publishing event in the U.S, as far as I know.

An author badge or pass had been reserved for me, at no cost to me. Anyway, I debated whether I should actually go to this event. Like any such large gatherings, the individual gets lost somewhere in the middle; things tend to exist in plurality. And as a person who doesn't like to blend in with the crowd (if I can help it), I wondered if I would be comfortable.

But going to the BEA would provide an opportunity to chat with anyone who might be interested in my book. It would be a chance to see what others are creating. I decided to attend the event today, which is the date that I was available.

I knew that some authors were going to be autographing, and I checked to see if any of the authors I liked (authors of literary fiction) would be present. Quite unsurprisingly, none of my favorite authors would be present at the BEA. No matter, I was going, if only to witness the publishing industry's finest show.

The 2006 BEA was (and still is) at the Washington Convention Center, in DC. The space, of course, was huge, with people constantly dripping about. The BEA was a quite simply a market place--for books. When I saw the scene, it seemed like the market place back home, with people selling and buying. I found that I derived pleasure in just watching people. I accepted all the pamphlets and info sheet that people gave me, to promote their various books. I saw authors signing books. People took pictures. Interviews were being conducted. I saw people in various costumes, assuming the characters in the particular book they were promoting. One author invited the attendees to play chess with him, and if they beat him, they get a free copy book of his book. I thought that was an excellent way to engage others.

All manner of people were present, from kids to adults, from the white to the black. I visited all the halls, refusing, for the most part, to use my map, so that I would be more open to the scene around me. It was so overwhelming to be surround by so many books, with each book adding to its call the voice of its promoter. "Pick me, look at me." "No, look at me."

Everyone wore a tag. And some people (myself included) flipped their badges over, so you couldn't tell what pool of attendee they were from. Looking closely, I did notice that most of the people I saw with flipped badges had a yellow bar on the face of their badge. I suppose there was some politics involved in this market place still. Some people, by virtue of the badge they wore, were probably more susceptible to random call for conversations. Overall, it was a lively and friendly atmosphere. Some people (getting tired of the demands of standing and walking around for so long) sat on the floor and ate some food to restore some of their energy.

While I was there, I was also distracted by the phone conversations I was having with friends and family about my visit, about how grand this whole show was. It was nice to see this human side of publishing. It was nice to put faces to the publishing industry. All ranges of publishers were present, from the small to the giant, and all kinds of books, covering all kinds of topics, had their say in this show. It was nice to be in this place where members of the publishing industry seemed to co-exist, without conflict or frowns, without the critical and condescending attitude that often infects it.

The BEA was one of the items on the list of things I had scheduled for myself today. In the afternoon, I decided to go see where my book was displayed, which was at the BEA new title showcase. One of the workers at the BEA helped me to find where my book was. He picked it up and looked at it. Then he asked, "You wrote this?" with a certain sense of amazement. I answered, "Yes." He opened the book and then asked what it was about. As I was about to answer, with unique and interesting words, this now hackneyed question, he let the words of The Looming Fog answer his question; he did not really want me to answer, and his flipping through the book silenced me.

"Ha, it is in Nigeria," he said with interest. I nodded. And he smiled. I didn't know what his "ha" meant, but I was pleased that he didn't wait for me to tell him about the book before he opened it; he wanted to find out for himself. He handed me the book with what seemed like a congratulatory smile, and then he went to stand at his post. I looked at my book. My book, my infant. I positioned it back on the shelf. I took a picture of my book (and the adjacent books) as it rested on the shelf. I also took a picture of the market scene. As I stood there, admiring the presence of my book on the shelf, I felt happy. I had created something. I had given birth to something, and soon others would share in this creation.

I looked around one last time. Walking down the carpeted steps and smiling, I bade goodbye to the faces of the BEA.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Heartbreak, Break-up, and Heart-death

Sometimes, it can be such a risky business to love. Memories of past hurt can make one a prisoner in one’s own heart. And when one does take a risk but is then abandoned, one can feel like shattering into little pieces, into unrecognizable bits. It saddens me to see young people destroyed by the loss of a love, by the hurt of such a loss. Some people do irrational things or violent things that they wouldn’t have thought themselves capable. It need not be this way.

Ever had that overwhelming feel of a break-up? That indescribable scorching of your heart that leaves you powerless, lost, and wishing that you were never born so you could rid your self of that tear in your heart-a tear caused by the knifes that seem stuck stubbornly in your heart, knifes that seem connected to the dragging rocks of previously great memories?

Heartbreak, like a virus, uses your own self against you. The memories of yesterdays can become the horrors of today. The smiles that use to sip into your senses, tickling you into uncontrollable laughter, now become the draft that rids you of comfort and sanity. Your mind may even punish you with thoughts about your possible foolishness for believing that the smiles would always favor you…

A heartbreak can be poisonous to the mind and body, but it need not be. The heart is an incredibly resilient organ; it can recover from any hurt if one accepts one’s mind as the powerful ally it is. Tomorrow can be brighter. A loving heart is a loved heart, a free heart, and it is not defined by one singular object/person.

Consider the poem Dissolution by Christine Klocek-Lim, which I discovered yesterday. What impressed me about the poem is Klocek-Lim's ability to take a subject so fragile, so potentially rich in histrionics, and confine it strictly in the realm of extrospective description. Reading the poem, I almost feel like the narrator is also the girl in the poem. Klocek-Lim takes away the heart, while talking about the heart--this has the effect of giving one an upper hand, rendering the pain almost confined in a box despite its attempt to confine. But pain will confine if given the opportunity.

In the end, to the heart, it never really matters who is at fault; it only sees its pain, and the heart can become crippled by this pain. If one can stand outside one's self and see the potentially crippling effect of heartache/hearbreak, one gains an upper hand, allowing one to respond more constructively to it.

A heart loves other hearts, starting with its own heart. A love that is lost, while painful, is just one lost heart, no matter how big a space that heart once occupied. There is always that singular heart, one’s own heart, which is a spring waiting to nourish other hearts.

Move forward, carefully, into the unpredictable stream of life, but do move. Do not imprison/poison that singularly important heart—that one that will never leave you, that one that dutifully and lovingly dances in honor of you—your own heart.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Life after death: A tribute to body donors

My school recently had a memorial service for the family and friends of people who donated their body to science so that future physicians, like myself, could learn, firsthand, about human anatomy. It was a very touching service, with motivating speeches, crying, candle lighting to commemorate each donor, and one-on-one conversations between students and relatives/friends.

I understand that not all schools offer a memorial service. As such, I have taken it upon myself to share my reflection, which was included in the memorial service, here. It is my hope that someone out there--a friend/relative of a body donor--would come across this post and know that their beloved's sacrifice was (and always will be) appreciated and meaningful.
Here goes:

Months ago when I walked into gross anatomy lab, into a room with many pale bodies, I felt somehow in danger. I was afraid of the lessons I would have to learn, lessons dealing not just with the human body, and it turned out that I was right.

During that first day of being in this special room, as I looked at the faces and bodies of a group of cadavers, it was hard to imagine the different people they had been and the different lives they had led. Yet, these bodies used to be very different kinds of people. Some might have been ambitious, playful, gregarious, or overachievers. So in a sense, it doesn’t matter that I am in this body and not in another. I am a person not just because I have life, but because of what I do with that life, of the relationships I had, of my dreams, and of my contributions to my community. I was already learning.

My “teacher” for the rest of the semester was a woman between fifty-five and seventy years old. She had an almost serious, determined look on her face. She gave the impression of having been a very strong-willed and determined woman, just like me. I wondered about what she was like when she still lived. What did she do? What would her family and friends say about her? What did she like to do for fun? Did she write? Unlike me, does she like to cook? What were her dreams and were they all achieved? Was she happy? Did she have any children or spouse? Did they miss her?

I was thankful for this moment to appreciate this woman I never knew, thankful that I am still interested in the person she had been. As we eventually got to dissecting, my special teacher continued to instruct me that life is the things you do while you are alive, it is the impression you leave on others, the memories you create for others to remember. “So live life well,” I imagined her say, so that whenever death comes to rob us, our humanity can fly to others, in the safe haven of the memories of friends, families, and sometimes even strangers.

Not to be morbid or anything, but the body reminded me of my fatality, so I was thus motivated to try to make the best of my time. I was motivated to hang out more with friends, to meet more new people, to pursue my dreams with joyous fervor, to make a difference in others' lives, to find more reasons to laugh, and to call my parents more often, which my parents were really happy about (although they didn’t know the exact reason why I called so frequently).

I sometimes wished I could have a chat with my teacher. I imagined I would say, “Do you know that your arteries don’t branch off like they are supposed to. Your body must be pretty creative to still get blood to where it needs to.” And she would reply maybe saying, “Well, my arteries don’t feel like conforming to people’s expectations of what they should be. They are unique, independent thinkers, and very smart—as you can see, they get the job done.” Then I would say, “Well, we can’t all be independent thinkers now, can we?” Then she would answer, “No, and that’s why my arteries are special.” Then we would both laugh. Little conversations like this allowed me to enjoy (rather than dread) being alone with her. I certainly appreciated her for being the only kind of teacher that if you see in an exam, you are guaranteed to get her questions right.

It sounds weird but I feel like I got to know my teacher well, although mostly through my imagination. She had been so willing, so ready to teach me about the body, to excite my mind with questions, and to make sure I fell in love with the details of the human body and how it functions. It was stimulating to figure out, for example, why she was missing her gallbladder or had bumps on her spleen, to imagine what these conditions meant for her life, and to speculate how she dealt with them. My teacher provided a map to her physical history, and having to put things together and figure out how she lived as a result helped to put back the humanity that her pale body threatened, unsuccessfully, to take away.

I feel the need to thank her for having been such a great teacher. I am grateful that because of her, human anatomy has some 3-D meaning to me; it has some practical meaning. When I talk about a muscle, it is no longer abstract, because I remember her muscle, what it looked like, and where it went and came from. It is so much harder for me to forget what I have learned, because that would be forgetting her. To remember her is to remember anatomy, and to remember anatomy is to remember her.

So here in the midst of everyone, I would like to say to this special teacher of mine: thank you for donating your body so I might learn about the human body and so be a better doctor. Thank you also for reminding me about the importance of life, about enjoying every moment. I thank you for denying your body its last graceful smirk on death (that is, the funeral dress-up), for you lesson to me would, otherwise, not have been as clear. I hope your life had been an enjoyable one. I know you live, even now, in your families' hearts, and even I will always remember you. Thank you for the lesson that only you could teach me.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Black books" & "White books"

It don't like the term “minority health,” which is supposed to mean the health of minorities. Even more disagreeable is the term “black books,” which is supposed to mean books by or for the African-American population. I use to think that my dislike for these terms was yet another example of my weirdness.

But now I can finally explain my mind's thoughts…

Consider the words of Richard Suzman, who in trying to give a possible explanation for a study’s finding that the English are healthier than the Americans says, “Minority health in general is worse than white health.” [See the link to the study to see where he’s going with this statement, but finish this post first.]

White health. Did you catch that? Health is white? It has a color? I know he meant the health of whites. But the nebulousness of this term (by itself) renders it almost meaningless. (Imagine someone who is just learning the English language. What do you think her/his reaction to this term would be?) And this tells me that “Minority health” is equally imprecise and nonsensical, although for some reason it has been adapted into people’s vernacular.

Similarly, you rarely hear of (and I have never heard of) “White books,” and hearing it now, from my own lips, sounds so odd. But I hear and see the term “black books” quite frequently.

I know that my objection to these kinds of shortcuts in language is in the direction in which it always seems to lie, and because these terms tend to (albeit subtly) have negative associations and tend to signal a sense of “exception.” It is as if we want the world to know that “black health” or “minority health” isn’t the normal or regular kind of health and that “black books” isn’t the normal or regular kind of books. These terms were probably used innocently, but they produce an effect, and we have to ask ourselves if this effect is desirable.

We like to categorize EVERYTHING, but such categorization is also a major hindrance to encouraging interaction between diverse groups. When you keep breaking a whole into little pieces, it becomes increasingly difficult to make those pieces form a stable whole.

As an aside, I appreciate Suzman’s balanced use of the terms discussed above--if you're going to use them, use them well, without bias or favoritism. What he said is better than saying," Minority health in general is worse than the health of whites." At least I think so.

By the way, be sure to check out that study's findings. They are quite interesting.

Well, I’m going back to studying.

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