DeMarco: Revelatory People

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

Have you ever met individual people who gave you a sudden, precious insight into who they were and in doing so helped you understand the world better?

I remember the first Latter Day Saint I ever met. She and I were part of a group of high school students from all over the country participating in a program in Washington, DC. My LDS colleague was brilliant and, at 18, engaged to be married. She had specific college and career plans about which she talked evocatively. When I inquired what her response would be if her future husband asked her to stay home to raise their children, she answered without hesitation in the affirmative. “What about your plans?” I asked. “My husband will be the head of the household,” she answered matter-of-factly. Even in 1981, I was surprised at her acceptance of male dominance, having been raised by a strong, independent woman whose husband was a co-equal partner.

In that moment, she opened a window to LDS life for me. Of course, not every LDS woman felt that way in 1981, and much has changed in 40 years, but it was a valuable, revelatory experience.

I was reminded of these sort of revelatory folk when two of them intersected recently: Sydney Poitier and Amy Schneider.

We all know the first name and were reminded of his impact when he died on January 6th. Unless you’re a “Jeopardy!” fan, you may not recognize the second. Schneider is the first transgender person to be a bigtime “Jeopardy!” winner.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not comparing their historical impact or their service to their cause or their life’s work, on which fronts, Poitier stands alone. Nor am I comparing the Civil Rights Movement to the movement for transgender acceptance.

But I was struck that Poitier and Schneider may play similar roles in introducing us to people that we might consider very different from ourselves.

Obviously, where you start determines who is missing from your consciousness. In the summer of 1982, after my first year at UVa, I worked for the Charleston County Park system. Almost all the children at the parks were black. I had several elementary age black girls ask if they could touch the hair on my forearms which was long and straight, like none they had seen before. It is likely the only time I will ever be considered a revelation.

Around that same time, I was doing volunteer carpentry work at UVa with a group that repaired homes for poor residents in the environs of Charlottesville, many of whom lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. It was there I met a man who gave me an important window into the lives of black people.

We were working on the home of a black family in which the husband was a lanky, gregarious man. He was a skilled carpenter and worked alongside us. Getting to know Randolph was an epiphany. He was in his 60s and still agile. But it was clear he had not gotten far in school. We didn’t specifically talk about his education, but it’s likely that the segregated schools he attended in the 1920s and 30s did not prepare him or encourage him to pursue a college degree. So he became a laborer. I remember being struck by the wasted opportunity he might have represented. Perhaps better opportunity would not have affected him. Perhaps carpentry was truly Randolph’s calling. But it bothered me that his calling might have been as a lawyer or doctor or engineer or schoolteacher, and that those opportunities might have been denied him.

I wondered if he was one of the many men and women of his generation who might have become professionals if society had recognized their worth. Of course, I knew enough about history to know that millions of black people his age had been discriminated against, but to work beside one of them, to see in the flesh someone whose fortitude and intelligence may have been wasted, was revelatory.

Poitier served as the counter example, a black man who was allowed to fulfill his potential. I suspect for many whites in the 1950s and ’60s, he was an example of black masculinity unlike many had ever encountered – self-assured, assertive, dignified, stylish, and rich – qualities previously associated almost exclusively with whiteness.

I grew up in the ’70s in that kind of world. I lived in a blue-collar neighborhood but had no black friends. I went to a private school and was not close to my three black classmates (out of 60-some). I had no black authority figure in my life – no teacher, coach, or neighbor. The only black people I encountered regularly were the cafeteria staff at my school, who greeted every student with a cheerful “Serve you?” Randolph was the first black man I had ever worked closely with or had the chance to admire. And when I came off the Blue Ridge and back to class, I did not have a single black professor my entire career at UVa.

Which brings me to Amy Schneider. As I write this, she continues on a 38-day winning streak in which she has won more than $1.3 million, placing her 4th on the list of all-time highest earners. She has had a similar revelatory impact on me. I was confused when she was first introduced in the November 17th episode. She was dressed as a woman but I thought I detected a shadow under her make-up, and as soon as my wife heard her voice she recognized she was a trans female.

As I struggled to reconcile Schneider’s image on my TV screen with my mental catalogue of gender identities, I had a revelation: Why, I wondered for the first time, should her biological sex or her gender identity matter to me? And I couldn’t think of a reason. It took a few minutes for that to sink in. I spend my days identifying my patients by their age and sex. If I call a consultant about a patient I begin, “I’m caring for a 72-year-old female who…” Identifying people by their biological sex is ingrained in me, and I suspect in many people. It was shocking to realize that in many human interactions, it’s irrelevant. As your doctor, I need to know. If you are a trans male and you still have a cervix, you need regular Pap tests, for example. If you are a cis-gender female swimmer and you have a trans female competitor, you can rightly claim that she has an unfair advantage. If you are looking for a romantic partner, it is probably essential.

But I’m happily married. Schneider is a “Jeopardy!” contestant whom I will never meet. Her biological sex has no relevance for me; I can be perfectly content not knowing it. Whatever gender she or any other person wishes to portray to the world is their choice. My opinion of that choice has no bearing.

As it happens, being trans may be an advantage in many fields, including “Jeopardy!” contestantship. Being able to experience maleness and femaleness appears to have given Schneider an exceptionally expansive world view.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net.

13 thoughts on “DeMarco: Revelatory People

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    You know, maybe when I’m through this COVID b.s., I’ll be able to think of some revelatory people I’ve met. I’m drawing a blank now. This may be due to my strong, lifelong resistance to Identity Politics. I try to encounter each person as an individual, and try to learn what I can about that unique person.

    I’m sure there have been people at some point whom I’ve first perceived as a member of this or that category before gaining greater insight, I’m just not coming up with any right now.

    Also, I bounced around from here to there so much as a kid, running into people from all sorts of backgrounds, maybe that’s part of it. For instance, I had black friends — not all that many, but some — at a much younger age than when Paul met Randolph.

    But still, segregation limited that somewhat. For instance, the first time I had any black kids in my class in school was in the second grade, when I was in New Jersey. I had a couple of black friends. No, I can’t name them for you, but then I can’t name a single white kid from that class, either.

    I remember once a white kid tried to tell me I shouldn’t hang with the black ones. Which I thought was kind of stupid. I didn’t get the whole race thing yet (actually, I guess I still don’t). To a lot of people, this would seem ironic. This was during the Civil War Centennial. Little blue kepis — those hats Civil War soldiers wore — were popular among the boys my age. I went to a good deal of trouble to find a gray one (actually, it was more of a light blue). I was asserting to these kids who often made fun of my accent that I was a Southerner. That was it. No political statement. To me it was like the difference between a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan, and I was going to wear my team’s cap, and fight off anybody who tried to snatch it off my head.

    So here I was, the assertive native of the state that caused the war — and contained more slaves than free people — being puzzled at encountering racism among whites in New Jersey. But I was. I hadn’t encountered it before. Is that because the South was so pure on this point? No. It’s because the South didn’t let black and white kids go to school together. And because of that, I hadn’t really thought all that much about black and white.

    Anyway, I ignored the little Yankee racist. But after that, I was slightly more aware that I was pretty much the only white kid playing with the black kids. I didn’t do it because I was noble or principled. I just liked hanging with them.

    On another occasion, one of those kids had a confrontation with either that or some other white kid, who was saying some stupid things about his skin color in an effort to insult him. I can’t remember what. It wasn’t one of those things with seeds of violence in it — which is saying something in that neighborhood, because we used to fight a lot. More of a “your mother wears Army boots” kind of insult exchange. I just remember feeling very uncomfortable and wishing he’d stop.

    What I DO remember is what my black friend said back to him: “Oh, yeah? Well, you just look like a marshmallow to me.”

    Yeah, I know — not the most original comeback. But it was original to ME at the age of 7, and I laughed aloud and for a long time thought it was one of the best zingers I’d ever heard….

    Reply
  2. Doug Ross

    From an article Amy wrote for Defector to answer the question on why she is smart:

    “Schneider writes, “I generally take one of two approaches. One is to attribute my intelligence to factors outside of my control. With this approach, I’ll generally observe that I was born with a brain that, for whatever reason, retains knowledge well. I don’t have a ‘photographic’ memory or anything like that; God knows I’ve spent enough time hunting my apartment for my phone to disprove that idea. But while many people, upon learning that, for example, ‘oviparous’ is an adjective meaning ‘egg-laying,’ will quite sensibly forget it almost immediately, I will probably remember it, and without any particular effort. Another factor, of course, is my privilege. Unlike most people in history, I wasn’t born into grinding poverty, and my parents believed in the value of knowledge as its own reward. Moreover, I am white, and until well into adulthood, was perceived as male. Had that not been the case, my intelligence would have been seen as surprising at best, and threatening at worst, which undoubtedly would have impacted my intellectual development. ”

    She lost me there on those last few sentences… she is smart today because she was born a white man apparently. All we need to do now is convince all young women to become transgender.

    I’ve watched at least half of her wins. She is very, very good at Jeopardy… but having read Ken Jennings book, the key is being quickest on the buzzer… getting the timing right is just as important as knowing the answers. I’m pretty good at trivia and when I keep score in my head I end up being a lot closer to her scores than most of her opponents — usually answering before Ken finishes the question. But that doesn’t mean my timing would match hers on the buzzer.

    I know a young guy who could give her a very good game — have watched him play along in a bar when Jeopardy was on TV and watched him win trivia contests in those bars by himself against teams of 4 at least 80% of the time. But he’s on the autism spectrum and would likely freeze up under the lights. He truly does have a photographic memory… we compete on the NY Times crossword puzzle every day. He did last Sunday’s in 22 minutes — took me 35.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m with you, Doug.

      This contestant isn’t good at “Jeopardy!” for growing up as a white man, or for deciding later to live as a woman.

      The real causes would be a) being wicked smart and b) the timing with the buzzer.

      And I lack that combination of characteristics. I’m good at knowing the answers, but bad at giving the answer quickly.

      I’ve thought about it. I think I would do better, statistically, if I just hit the button immediately, instead of waiting until I was sure — which with me usually takes a second or two. But I don’t know; I’d have to test it in a game situation. I might lose as many points that way as I gain, because sometimes I DON’T know the answer.

      If only they removed the time element — simply asking every contestant every question, and giving points to those who answer correctly — I’d be really good at that game. But as it stands, I’m at a disadvantage…

      Reply
      1. Barry

        I think she meant being white, male, and smart where she grew up was reinforced positively and it’s her opinion that if she had been white, smart, and female, the confidence she developed might have been thwarted a bit. I can’t doubt her opinion on her experience because I don’t know exactly what she faced growing up.

        I will say that when people that know my family find out my teen daughter scores on the gifted in an accelerated academic program, well meaning folks will tell my daughter she will make a good teacher one day. I’m not sure any of them have told her she’d make a good engineer or computer scientist (which is what anyone that knows her knows she’s much more interested in).

        But I will say I think many schools have over-compensated in encouraging females. When my 18 year old was in middle school, I attended the end of year awards day ceremonies a few times as parents were always welcome.

        After seeing 3 of these programs, I was surprised at the huge number of females that were winning the awards. My wife also noticed it. She said she had seen the same thing at her school. In fact, I think in one section of the school math and science awards, only 1 boy in the 8th grade received an award. The rest of the 10 or so award winners were female. It was a bit surprising.

        So after the event, I wrote an email to an administrator at the school politely inquiring as if this was something they had noticed. To my surprise, the administrator admitted that it had been noticed and it was a trend they were tracking. He had no solution to it – and I didn’t either- but he said their male student success percentage had fallen off district wide to a level that district personnel were studying the issue. ((in educational speak, that means they were pretty concerned about it). He would not comment if this was a national trend – but upon further reading, I learned that it was indeed a trend across the country that is continuing.

        Now some 4-5 years later, we are seeing evidence of this in pretty significant falling numbers for males going to and graduating from colleges compared to females.

        Reply
        1. DOUGLAS ROSS

          College is overrated. COVID exposed that. If you can learn remotely, you don’t need to go to college. The future for STEM will be specialized certification programs, not 30k a year to take required liberal arts classes just to get a degree.

          Reply
          1. Barry

            I think college is very important and the experiences of college are invaluable, not just in the classroom but also in the other activities that colleges offer. Of course the friendships in college can also be life changing – so much more so than high school.

            But I don’t think college is the end all be all that it is portrayed in some areas. It is not for everyone and it shouldn’t be portrayed as an answer for everyone.

            I also don’t think the name of the college where someone goes makes a hill of a beans of difference in 99% of situations.

            But the reality is many companies still focus on hiring college graduates and being a college graduate gives men and women a serious leg up on those that don’t have a college degree.

            For those that do have those valuable certificates, they do have lot of options. But at least for the next few decades, to get promotions in most companies, it will require a college degree.

            Now, some people have no interest in being managers or moving up into leadership positions and that’s great. That’s me. I have no interest in being a manager or VP or anything of the sort. But some do.

            So I think it’s nuanced.

            I am glad that I have a college junior majoring in computer science because computer programming is a natural fit.

            I am also glad I have a high school senior (he’s a National Honor Society member who has many 4 year colleges interested) that is going to Tech for 2 years with plans to transfer to USC to finish his degree. But he’s not sure what he wants to do just yet so the 2 year route makes sense for him – and it’s also tuition free.

            Reply
            1. Doug Ross

              You are making my point. If those first two years can be done at a community college for free, make the case for four years at USC. Besides good seats for the football game, what else do you get that is worth $50-60K? A Sociology 101 class with 300 other students? An English literature class that most will never get anything from? Calculus classes that are only useful for a very limited few in specialized programs?

              The future is a la carte education taught remotely by the best teachers. 10,000 students taking a great class by the world’s best professor with 100 teaching assistants doing office hours, grading work, etc. On demand video, online exams… That’s the model we should have.

              Reply
              1. Barry

                My case for 4 years at USC would be better made by my junior there who Is there.

                We will never replace the model of being physically present in a campus environment, nor should we.

                But that doesn’t mean other options wont be pursued and beneficial.

                I think folks that don’t have kids in high school right now don’t realize the high schools are not pushing a four year degree anywhere near what they were doing when I was in high school.

                High schools now are very much stressing trade schools, certificate programs, internships, two year degrees, as well as for 4 year colleges

                Reply
  3. Doug Ross

    Spoiler alert…….

    Amy lost in last night’s show. The guy who beat her pulled a real Hail Mary but that was likely the only way to beat her lately. He went for broke on a daily double to get within range where Amy had to bet a larger amount on the final jeopardy question and then he got the final answer and Amy didn’t. It ended so quickly that everyone appeared shocked. It was a good run and now we’ll see how she does in the tournament of champions. Not sure she’s in the same class as Jennings or Holzhauer so it will be interesting to see if she can capitalize on her newfound fame like they did. Hopefully centered on trivia and not identity politics.

    Reply

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