Dr. Regina Benjamin: HIgh Achievement

President Obama has just nominated Dr. Regina Benjamin to the post of Surgeon General, the AP reported yesterday. Obama said that Dr. Benjamin “has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system” and that she will bring important insight as his administration tries to revamp that system.

Dr. Benjamin truly has seen her fair share of personal and family tragedy, as her brother died at age 34 of HIV-AIDS, her mother of lung cancer, and her father of complications resulting from diabetes. With her entire family victimized by these diseases, her life is a testament to the health problems facing this country and the racial injustices plaguing the Black community. She has faced lots of other tragedy, as her medical clinic was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and again by a fire just after it was rebuilt. She then rebuilt this very important New Orleans clinic yet again.

Benjamin(Photo: Wikipedia) Not surprisingly, the right-wing press is again mocking President Obama’s well-qualified nominee. A Fox News headline reads, “Obama Taps ‘Genius’ Doctor, Katrina Victim for Surgeon General,” an obtuse reference to a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation award she received for her dedicated and selfless service following Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Benjamin is receiving some gendered-racist attacks like Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has gotten the last few days, with some right-wing (like Senator Jeff Sessions, famous for his “joking” comments about the nice folks at the KKK) attacks on her “wise Latina” comments.

Contrary to the opinions of many on the right, Dr. Benjamin is more than qualified for the position. Her amazing list of academic, medical, and civic service qualifications are listed thus in wikipedia:

Dr. Benjamin attended Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and was a member of the second class of the Morehouse School of Medicine. She received her M.D. degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. . . Benjamin is former associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine in Mobile, where she administers the Alabama AHEC program and previously directed its Telemedicine Program. She serves as the current president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. In 1995 she was elected to the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, making her the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected. Benjamin is a diplomate of the American Board of Family Practice and a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

That should be enough to be Surgeon General, right. But then the list of her achievements continues:

She was a Kellogg National Fellow and also a Rockefeller Next Generation Leader. She has served on a variety of boards and committees, including the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Catholic Health East, Medical Association of the State of Alabama, Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, Alabama State Committee of Public Health, Mobile County Medical Society, Alabama Rural Health Association, Leadership Alabama, Mobile Area Red Cross, Mercy Medical, Mobile Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Mobile, and Deep South Girl Scout Council. She was appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act Committee and to the Council of Graduate Medical Education. . . .In Alabama, she formerly served as vice president of the Governor’s Commission on Aging, and also formerly as a member of the Governor’s Health Care Reform Task Force and the Governor’s Task Force on Children’s Health. . . . Dr. Benjamin was named by Time Magazine as one of the “Nation’s 50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under.” She . . . was chosen “Person of the Week” by ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, “Woman of the Year” by CBS This Morning, and “Woman of the Year” by People Magazine.

Wow! Can any of her critics come close to matching this remarkable list of achievements? Talk about having to be the proverbial “water walker” to get nominated for high office. In discussing this nomination with Adia, we agree with her view that it is often the case that people of color, and certainly women of color, are told to work hard and play by the societal rules. But when they, like Dr. Benjamin and Judge Sotomayor, do that extremely well and then seek out or get nominated for nontraditional jobs not open to them until recently in U.S. history, or when they literally shatter the conventional glass ceilings, certain white racist folks, talk show hosts, and politicians start articulating racist stereotypes and narratives and engage in name-calling, like the calling of Dr. Benjamin as “fat” and racist commentaries, including racist epithets, on various news and right-wing websites. Instead, why isn’t the right celebrating them for doing exactly what they were told, working very hard and achieving great things? One would think these women would be celebrated in all corners of conservative America? Is the reason they are not because that work-hard rhetoric is really a ruse and cover often used to rationalize a racist system that has little or no attention of changing its basic structure for those who more than meet the calls of this work rhetoric?

While being overweight is a health concern that Dr. Benjamin and others in the health field are likely very aware of, why is it that none of these right-wing folks talk about how fat Justice Antonin Scalia is, or Karl Rove, or the huge Rush Limbaugh in regard to their “qualifications”? Indeed, we have not seen anyone suggest that these white men’s overweightness interferes with their ability to do their jobs. Yet, for women of color like Benjamin, this immediate accent on their being overweight is a common gendered/racial stereotype that seems to be linked to the old black “mammy” image, which is part of the 400 year old white racial frame.


  1. Kristen

    Joe (and Adia), that’s such a good point about the lie of “if you work hard and overcome those supposed obstacles, you’ll earn our respect.” But, perhaps this is the battle that precedes the embrace. If she does a good job – no doubt she will – in a few years she’ll probably be used as yet another contrast with what “what’s wrong with black Americans” that they can’t seem to achieve like she has; whites, liberal and conservative, will put her in the ranks with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Condoleeza Rice, etc.

  2. Dave Paul

    Yes Kristen, that is the Catch-22 of being Black in America. Whites continue to denigrate and belittle Blacks for not living up to “White” standards.

  3. siss

    [“While being overweight is a health concern that Dr. Benjamin and others in the health field are likely very aware of, why is it that none of these right-wing folks talk about how fat Justice Antonin Scalia is, or Karl Rove, or the huge Rush Limbaugh in regard to their “qualifications”?”]

    Her weight is an issue because she is being nominated for Surgeon General. The other people you mention aren’t the national spokesperson on health issues. It’s similar to an obese doctor telling you need to slim down and get healthy. I think that is the issue. Maybe she is comfortable with her body and thinks that her size is okay. If so, good for her. If not, she’ll change if she wants to. It’s a non-issue in my opinion (I couldn’t care either way – especially because her laundry list of credentials makes her very a great candidate), but I can see were others may find it a little hypocritical.

  4. siss

    Dave: [“Whites continue to denigrate and belittle Blacks for not living up to “White” standards.”]

    How do you apply this statement to this situation? Are you referring to the comment about weight or conservatives’ views on her track record?

  5. Dave Paul

    What I mean is that Whites continue to barrage Blacks with not living up to the standards of famous Blacks like President Obama. The successes of a few are all too often used against the masses of the Black community. Instead, we should be praising the few Blacks who make it so very far and overcome such inordinate obstacles. We do this, to an extent, but then we turn around and castigate the Blacks who don’t match up with the Black elite (who in essence, live by “White” standards).

    Why can’t we praise Blacks who live by their own standards?

  6. Dave Paul

    And in regards to the hypocritical issue. I find it hypocritical that so many White men profess to understand what’s best for minorities, and then they pass laws that directly affect minorities, although, not suprisingly, they are not minorities themselves, neither have they ever had to live the sting of being a minority.

  7. siss

    For the sake of discussion, why would you praise someone who doesn’t live up to that persons standards. ex: How can a Catholic praise an Atheist for living up to the Atheist own standards? It’s fundamentally different from that of Catholics so its silly to “praise someone for ‘their’ own standards. It then turns to a struggle of who’s right who’s wrong. Let Catholics do as they please and Atheists the same. That’s the root of the issue, imo.

    PLUS – if minorities are tired of attempting to live up to “white” standards, why not stop trying, embrace their “standards” and stop looking for praise in the wrong places. If you feel like you are right in your beliefs, find praise within your community of like-minded believers. I don’t think that is the optimal solution but it’s a question I often wonder about.

    And I think most people realize that Obama, Winfrey, Cosby and the like aren’t the standard, just the exception. Just like their white counterparts, not everyone (regardless of race) can make it to the top. It is a perpetuated American myth that if you try hard enough you can be anything you want to (but that’s a whole different subject).

  8. I think the hypocrisy is that whites will say, “Why can’t more black be like Oprah/Obama/etc?” Then when we have a ridiculously qualified person, like Benjamin, or even Sotomayor, they start screaming “affirmative action baby.” So it’s like, if you’re not a wildly successful black person, you’re lazy. But then, when Benjamin comes along, it’s not that she worked hard, it’s that she when promoted even when she didn’t qualify (which is how racists understand affirmative action), and so though accomplished, she’s still lazy and unqualified. You know? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
    As for her weight . . . It is possible that she’s perfectly healthy and doesn’t need to drop a pound. But assuming she has a weight issue, the truth is had she looked like Halle Berry, they would’ve found something to complain about.

  9. @siss – I think you’re touched on something very important. There’s really no right or wrong way to do things. It’s just that in this country, the white social norm is made the standard for everybody. That’s what we mean by “white privilege.”
    I think there’s a misunderstanding when it comes to “praise,” race, and racism. Oprah, for example, talked about how much it meant to receive that NAACP award, to receive praise from her own people. So, we do all look for praise from places other than the white social norm. However, because the white social norm is made the national standard, a person of color can’t become successful without adhering closely to it. And that’s why we have to live up to white standards. Even mainstream rappers, who “represent” for people the most extreme form of rejecting standards, stick close to the “standard”/stereotype white people have of inner-cities and blackness.
    No, actually, it seems to me that most people don’t realize Oprah, Cosby, and Obama are exceptions regardless of race. And if I may confess, I actually quite surprised to learn that you do.

  10. siss

    But shouldn’t there be a soical norm made standard for everyone? It doesnt have to be “white” but is because our founding fathers/builder of the governement ect. were white.

    Why can’t you be successful if you adhear to a more “black” standard? Please explain your relationship between black standards and non-acheievment in a white society. (the devil is in the details 🙂 Im sure you have discussed it to death, but i don’t think I am making the connection between the two.

    When you say “it seems like most people don’t know these people are exceptions”, what indicates this? Through media portrayal? Personal experiences? Bodies of research?I know this because I was not raised with the “you can be anything you want” meme.

  11. Joe Author

    NO1KState, that is a very important point about how even the most talented folks of color have to conform to much white framing and norms in order to make it to the level of major political and media figures. This certainly shows we are not close to being a post-racial society.

  12. siss

    Joe: can you list/describe the norms and framing you mention, as related to Mrs. Benjamin’s case? There isn’t much I can come up with for her to do. It seems, in my mind, that shes is had done more than enough to fill the shoes just fine.

  13. Joe Author

    Siss, I had in mind Bebe Moore Campbell’s comments. She has assessed the culture shock faced by many black employees in white-normed corporate and gov’t environments: “Black women consciously choose their speech, their laughter, their walk, their mode of dress and car. They trim and straighten their hair. . . . They learn to wear a mask.” To make it in these white-normed, hist. white environments.

  14. siss

    Those things are superficial. Why change who you are? As long as you still look professional (neat, clean, well manered) the facade is neither this nor that.

  15. Kristen

    Hi siss,
    Hope you don’t mind me jumping in. Something like hairstyle is really superficial! I agree, why should someone change their self-presentation? But here’s another question: Why would black women feel pressured to do this? Don’t you think their modifications are a response to the conditions with which they are faced? They have to conform to standards established by whites, or face some consequences. It is a white-centric society that has basically forced a great number of black women to chemically treat their hair so that it is straighter. White women are not faced with this pressure. I have never put chemicals on my hair in my entire life (btw I am white), and I would feel violated if my coworkers associated the way my hair naturally grows with a lack of professionalism. Wouldn’t you?
    You’re right – something like hairstyle shouldn’t matter, but it DOES. Perhaps we should have some sort of standards for “professionalism,” but why should those standards ever deny an entire subsection of the population the right to wear their hair the way it grows out of their heads? Or, for that matter, the right to speak with an accent or a dialect?

  16. Joe Author

    Siss, the research shows that many whites discriminate against people of color who do not dress, talk, and/or act like whites, or like whites think they should. For example, some white workplaces have banned certain Black hairstyles….

  17. siss

    It is a white-centric society. However, no one has forced them to chemically treat their hair. That’s synonymous to saying, I’m forced by buy skinny jeans because all of my co-workers wear them. I understand the need to fit in; as Im sure everyone here remembers high school. However, that’s pressure that everyone is faced with from the media’s perversion with perfection. Oh and when did curly, natural hair become unprofessional? I was un-blessed with wavy hair that has to be styled or it looks a hot mess. Styled, natural African American hair is beautiful imo. I’d vie for some big volume and curls.

    I may be showing my naivety here but…. banned certain hair styles? That’s outrageous! Where was this? When was this? How does one justify this?

  18. Joe Author

    Siss, Professor Marc Lamont has this on his blog, just as one key example: “Starting January 1, 2007, the Baltimore Police Department imposed new rules to eliminate natural hairstyles. According to General Order C-12: • Extreme or fad hairstyles are PROHIBITED, including but not limited to: cornrows, mohawks, dreadlocks, and twists, as well as designs or sculptures using the hair and/or cut into the hair. When asked to explain the reason for the change, the Department explained that the police were blending in with the criminals!”


    The military has imposed some similar restrictions, I have also heard.

  19. Nquest

    Siss, you’re not showing naivete, you’re showing the lack of attention you’ve paid to this issue you’ve decided to discuss questioning knowledgeable parties as if they are naive and suspect regarding their reports of what goes on in this society just because you are unaware of things they already know.
    February 22, 2006
    FedEx Settles Dreadlocks Case
    Rastafarian Wins Discrimination Suit Against Greyhound
    Jan 17, 2002
    Burgundy haired employee suspended from job
    July 5, 2008

  20. siss

    Thank you for the article. However, professionalism = conservative in today’s modern society. I think of this comparison similar to having dress codes in school. While there is nothing wrong with having a Mohawk or dreads to your bum, it draws attention and distracts others. That is the real reason behind banning extreme hairstyles. There is however some grey area when it encroaches on religion, but that’s another can of worms.

    NQuest: thank you for you input but ill continue to question things/persons I have questions about. If you think that’s showing lack of attention, so be it. Im not as Mom or Darin, I’ll just ignore you covertly condescending attitude and decline future engagement with you.

  21. Joe Author

    Siss, cornrows, dreadlocks, and afros are not “extreme hairstyles.” They are normal hairstyles for black Americans, and they are generally healthy ways to wear hair for many people. Why do whites get to decide what is “extreme” in hairstyles? that is what I meant by a white-normed, white-racist society.

  22. Nquest

    Siss said: I may be showing my naivety here but…. banned certain hair styles? That’s outrageous! Where was this? When was this? How does one justify this?
    Then, once her questions were answered and proof of the “outrageous” was provided, Siss retreated into the predictable, patented defense of WHITE SUPREMACY:
    “…professionalism = conservative in today’s modern society…. While there is nothing wrong with having a Mohawk or dreads to your bum, it draws attention and distracts others. That is the real reason behind banning extreme hairstyles.”
    Obviously, (FAKE) “outrageous” no more.

  23. adia

    I would add Six Flags to Nquest’s list, as I recall that they also banned what they termed as “ethnic” hairstyles, including cornrows and dreadlocks. To Siss, I would echo Joe’s question of what exactly makes these hairstyles “extreme.” Who gets to make this determination? Cornrows and twists are overwhelmingly common hairstyles for young black girls because chemical relaxers can cause damage, so hair care professionals do not recommend them for young women. So in black communities, these hairstyles are so basic that they’re about the equivalent of a ponytail. They may be “extreme,” “unprofessional,” or not “conservative” enough to those with little familiarity and interaction with black people, but this just goes to show how power relations and the racial hierarchies that are embedded within them determine basic aspects of everyday life and workplace relations. (In other words, whites who don’t have exposure to these hair styles and how common they are get to decide that they are “extreme,” and that straight hair, which requires chemical processing, equipment, and financial outlay for most blacks, is “normal,” “professional,” and “acceptable.”)

    Additionally, when you say “no one has forced them to chemically treat their hair,” this is misleading and inaccurate if/when organizations prohibit natural hairstyles like braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, etc. Even in those organizations that don’t explicitly prohibit these styles but push employees to fit into a particular mold (I’m thinking here of law firms, banks, and the like), natural hairstyles are often openly discouraged. This is because, as you yourself have acknowledged, this is “a white-centric society,” so whites can decide that hairstyles common to minority groups are “unprofessional” or not “conservative” enough.

    There’s a long history of how hair has been used as a marker of black people’s inferiority and “otherness.” Noliwe Rooks’ “Hair Raising” is an excellent study in this, and Ingrid Banks’ “Hair Matters” is informative as well. If you’re interested in getting more information on this issue, these books would be great places to start. And Siss, I believe Banks’ book has more examples of the ways in which women experience overt and covert pressure to straighten their hair in professional jobs, which might make you reconsider your belief that “no one’s forcing these women to do this.”

  24. siss

    I took “natural hairstyles” to mean untreated, without chemicals, hince the word natural. When you derive hairstyles to mean natural, it changes the meaning completely.

    adia, I will look into those studies because I find this extremely interesting aspect of racism that I haven’t really looked into. Most of my experience with ethinic hair has been through friends, most of whom have chosen to keep it un-treated and dont wear braids, dreds ect. In this instance, I acknowledge I responded out of my own “personal” frame with out giving better thought to what natural means to me, a white female, versus what natural means to a black female.

  25. @siss – 1) You’re white? Boy! That explains a lot! Now that I have a better idea of your general perspective, always keep in mind that just like with these hairstyles, just because you, as a white female, feel as though you know there’s no racist intent behind some behavior or policy doesn’t mean that racism isn’t an underlying factor. Also, white America doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, decide what’s racist and what’s not. Effect is as important as intent. And if more white Americans were to ask the questions Adia suggests, ie what makes certain hairstyles “extreme” and why, I think we’d get a lot farther in the discussion on race.
    2) A quick history of the Rastafarian dredlocks – That style was developed as a way to conform to the Eurocentric standard of long hair and at the same time, resist the Eurocentric standard of straight hair. Kinda like Santeria and actually “voo doo” adopted the whole father/priesthood and saints aspects of Catholicism while continuing to worship their African gods.

  26. I have another question that may be off-topic as it concerns Dr. Benjamin’s weight, btw, maybe she’s just “heavy-boned.” (lol) But since we’re talking about hairstyles . . .
    I understand the white “rockers” and other nonConfederate “rebels” who style their hair 101 different ways. And I admit that part of the reason I stopped relaxing my hair and now have dredlocks was my rejection of whiteness, and a few ignorant white classmates in particular, so that may be some of my angst. But. It drives me crazy and I find it a bit offensive to see white Americans wear dredlocks. Like I said, it could be just my own personal thing that I don’t want my rejection of whiteness to be made white. And I guess one could draw parallels between the rasta reasons for locks and white “rebels” and their dredlocks. But when I see a white person wearing locks, it feels like s/he is belittling the anti-racist, “resistance” nature of blacks wearing dredlocks. Especially those who wear locks just for style and no particular political statement at all. Am I wrong for feeling this way?

  27. siss

    Lol. Yes, I am white. [“personal thing that I don’t want my rejection of whiteness to be made white”. ] That is an interesting concept. I can see how you could feel that way. Question: if our rejection of blackness was in turn made black, would that be racist?

    Very possible that she could be “big boned”. (next time she photographed in a bikini, we should get together and compare lol)Personally, I am more concerned with her qualifications rather than her weight. So that factor aside, I think she’ll make a great SG. In my OP I was merely pointing out that I could see where others might find that a bit of a pitfall.

  28. Just a note – my question concerning hairstyles is to everyone.
    @siss – I like your sense of humor. And I appreciate your question. To give you my honest, if somewhat nuanced answer

    if our rejection of blackness was in turn made black, would that be racist?

    No, I don’t believe so. Considering the unequal positions of social status and power, and notions of inferiority vs superiority, some of this “reclamation” is the black community’s way of rejecting white social norms and whiteness as superior. My question concerning white folks in dredlocks is a bit more complex. Do they know or appreciate the history behind African Americans, and African Caribbeans, wearing dredlocks. Do they know or appreciate the power of resistance is to overwhelming oppression. One of the reasons I decided to lock my hair was because I just missed having long hair, and I knew it was away to address my own quirkiness, pay homage to the history of struggle and resistance of my ancestors; and, it’s still an act of resistance. As I see it, locks started, and remains centuries later, as a way to really question white racial/cultural superiority. It’s a way of conforming to Eurocentric-beauty standards with that twist that it’s still uniquely Afrocentric, right? And how does the white racial frame respond to the “uglier” race meeting the “more sophisticated” race’s standards in a way the logically legitimizes white superiority and dominance?
    Don’t get me wrong. That is certainly not to say that every black person wearing locks things that to themselves. But. They’ve certainly been admonisted to call them “locks” and not “dreds” as in, “dreadful.” And black women certainly know it’s easier on the scalp and hair than relaxers. And, truth be told, once you got’em, they’re fairly easy to maintain, hardly any thing on a day-to-day basis beyond shaking it out for body. So there’re practical reasons to for black women especially to wear beyond the political statement I just put forth. My problem with white people wearing locks is that first off, there’s no practicality to it. I have not exactly “good” hair, but no doubt a “better grade” of hair, and getting my hair to lock took a couple of years. So I know for probably 90% of white people, it would take 3-4 years at least, if ever, for their hair to lock. So there’s’ that. Then, of course, my questions of how much they know or even care about the history. And of course, I definitely question whether or not they’re rejecting society and it’s racism, that it really is an act of anti-racist solidarity; or, if they’re just rejecting middle/upper class norms for the sake of just wanting to standout and sneer at their elders. And what about those who just like the look, who know nothing about rasta and don’t really care to learn, but saw Halle Berry in BULWORTH with Norman Beatty and liked the look. ~ So. Sorry for the lengthy response. I couldn’t said this earlier, but didn’t want to bias the question.

  29. Oh! I didn’t finish my thought. . . . so, with all that in mind, to me, a white person in locks is mocking my own struggle to succeed in a system that has requirements outside my natural reach. Sure, I can have, and did have, long, luscious, beautiful hair. But is it fair that I have to put on my scalp some chemical the stylist won’t even touch without wearing gloves? And I know a white person wearing locks would be horrified to learn how I feel about it, which kinda agitates me all the more.
    And again, just so I’m not trying to play some “moral high ground,” I do have in my mind the specific white persons who spoke such inanity as to make me completely reject the logic of even superficial assimilation. So, my whole angst, despite all the political reasoning, could just be my still annoyance with white classmates who, on a campus 80% white, complained that a “white student movement” wouldn’t be allowed. Just so I’m being honest.

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