Speaking out

Trauma surgeon delivers message on need for race relations dialogue
June 22nd, 2017

Dr. Brian Williams during a speaking engagement at Texas A&M College of DentistryDr. Brian Williams was the lead trauma surgeon on duty the night of July 7, 2016, when seven Dallas police officers were brought into the emergency room at Parkland Hospital after a sniper opened fire on a peaceful anti-brutality rally in downtown Dallas.

“Last summer changed my life, and I’m here to change yours,” Williams said during a discussion on “Bridging Cultural Gaps in America: The Intersection of Race, Violence and Medicine” at Texas A&M College of Dentistry Wednesday, June 21. The presentation was coordinated by the College of Dentistry’s Committee on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access.

As associate professor of surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center and trauma/critical care surgeon at Parkland, Williams cared for the injured police officers and comforted the families of three officers who succumbed to their injuries. Alone in a hallway, the weight of the experience took its toll, and he found himself on his knees weeping over the murder of the officers. At the same time he grappled with his own complicated feelings about the racial tension between black Americans and law enforcement around the country and the equally senseless deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers.

For Williams, that was the night his silence was broken.

During a press conference following the attack, Williams spoke publicly for the first time about his own experiences as a black man in American society and his fears of encountering police.

“There’s this dichotomy where I’m standing with law enforcement, but I also personally feel the angst that comes when you cross the path of an officer in uniform and you fear for your safety,” Williams told reporters. “I’ve been there, and I understand that.”

Since the tragedy, Williams has shared his story in hopes of opening dialogue about race relations in this country.

“My journey of silence began when I was a young child. At the age of four or five, I approached a young boy my age, who was white, to see if he wanted to play. His mother quickly came over and shuffled him away,” he said. “It was my first lesson about where I stood in society — that you, a little black boy, are inferior.”

Even as a medical professional, Williams could not escape being viewed through different lenses as a person of color.

He relayed an example in which he was standing at the entrance to the garage of his Dallas apartment complex, waiting for a ride to the airport, when two police officers came up and asked him why he was standing there. After pointing to his luggage and explaining that he lived in the complex, he was asked to present his identification.

“I remember after that moment, I was seething in anger, because at that point in my life I had done everything I was supposed to do,” Williams said. “I went to college. I served in the military. I was on the faculty at a major medical center. And it did not matter.”

Williams speaks with Texas A&M College of Dentistry faculty members on June 21.

“I can’t say what ending the silence means for you, or that it will be easy. But I will say this: It is absolutely critical.”

—Dr. Brian Williams

Williams said he remained silent even at work when other doctors were introduced as being doctors, but he was not; he was simply “Brian.” Or the time he was on rounds with other residents and, as the only black individual present, he was asked to leave the room before they examined the patient.

So when Williams was approached about participating in the press conference last July, he initially declined. He had never talked about his issues with race, and he did not know what to expect. Would he be marginalized by his colleagues or alienated by his friends? After much introspection, he agreed to participate.

He thought to himself: “At some point I have to speak. If not now, when? Something has to be said. If not you, Brian, then who?”

Although he knew it would upend his world, he talked about his duality as a black man and a medical professional in the midst of the situation. The Brian Williams on July 6 was not the same person on July 8, he said. July 7 changed him.

Williams believes people have to talk about race; they have to speak up.

“I can’t say what ending the silence means for you, or that it will be easy,” Williams said. “But I will say this: It is absolutely critical.”

 

— Ladawn Brock