Many moons ago, I had my subliminal biases called out and to the front by a classmate. She wasn’t just targetting me, she was slamming the entire class – the entire class of white kids who turned to her, the only black student, to see her reaction whenever slavery, Tuskegee, Jim Crowe laws, and whathaveyou were brought up. She was rightfully angry – why did we expect her to be the face of every black person? On the one hand, we were only 12, so I think it’s an acceptable reaction for the age. On the other, it’s something that’s stayed with me, and I pay particular attention when I find myself either reacting in an exceptionalist way towards someone, or have it happen towards me.
In the last couple of days, more than a few people have asked me what I think about the Edwards continuing the campaign trail, with the news that Elizabeth Edwards now has incurable bone cancer. Do I think it’s right? Don’t I think they should go home, be with family, allow her to die in peace? Shouldn’t I know the proper thing, speaking as someone whose family has been affected by cancer? (There might even be an underlying “well, tell us if you think it’s ethical!”)
The thing is, most of the people who ask seem to be looking for condemnation, and that’s not something I can give. I think that the Edwardses are doing the right thing. She has incurable cancer, but you can live with incurable cancer for a very long time. Why should she flee back to the ‘safety’ of a home that can offer nothing more than she’ll get anywhere else? Why should she – or for that matter, her husband or children – stop living their lives? Can you imagine how that might make her feel, to have everyone drop everything and rush to be around her 24/7? Might that not feel like they’re all just waiting for you to die, so they can get on with their lives?
Elizabeth Edwards is choosing to live with cancer. Yes, eventually it will probably kill her – and she’ll make a choice prior to that to be dying with cancer. But that’s not the choice she’s made right now, and I’m not sure why anyone should want her to lie down and give up well before it’s time to accept an oncoming death.
I think a lot of naysayers are bitter about two things: the potential for this to give Edwards a needed bump in the election process (and frankly, I think that speaks worse to voters, that they would vote for someone out of sympathy instead of qualifications), and the fact that someone who is sick is refusing to hide. By Elizabeth being out there and campaigning for her husband, people can’t pretend cancer doesn’t happen, that good people don’t get sick, that our health care system is fine. Elizabeth, like previous celebrities before her, bring a human face to an illness and remove our ability to create an invisible, stigmatized individual to assign to that disease. And unlike Lance Armstrong or Kylie Minogue, Elizabeth’s celebrity-ness is in a field where she might be able to do more than raise money – she might be able to change the entire way the game is played.
And that, I think, makes people who’d rather not see universal health insurance and health accesss a reality, very very nervous.