Brown Like Me: Voices from people of color in Leelanau County

By Cyrus Ghaemi 

Sun contributor

Cyrus Ghaemi, 33, lives in Cedar and works as a physician at Empire Family Care. As such, he was featured this spring in our Leelanau Essentials series, which honors the workers who keep us safe during the Coronavirus pandemic. The son of Iranian immigrants, Ghaemi shares his experiences with racism and Islamophobia, his struggle to assimilate while also honor his roots, and what recent interactions with law enforcement reveal about racism in Leelanau County.

This series is inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is provoking conversations nationwide about racial inequities. Check out our previous stories by and about people of color and how they are treated here in Leelanau County, including profiles on African-American Marshall Collins, Jr., and Mexican-American Bea Cruz.

I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life; I was born in Metro Detroit, and my father fell in love with Northern Michigan before my sister and I were born. We grew up spending a lot of time here together as a family. I finally moved here myself to finish my training in Family Medicine at Munson’s Family Medicine Residency Program, about six years ago now. After graduation, my wife Christina and I moved from Traverse City to Cedar, and I started working at the medical clinic in Empire. My wife is a farmer and educator, and works with nonprofits to increase access to healthy, local produce in the community. We’ve always wanted to live here, and so it felt like such a gift to finally be able to do so.

I have an older half-brother, and younger sister. Our parents immigrated to the United States from Iran in the late 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution really took off, and during that time the hostage crisis was going on. They left everything behind and had to start over here during a time of very specific international political toxicity. They were fortunate in that my father was a doctor and professor in Iran, but to the best of my knowledge, not much of that training was respected or acknowledged by our medical system, and he had to redo most of his training here. This was during the political unrest between our two countries, so I can only imagine the prejudice he faced; he doesn’t talk about that part of his life very much. 

As my sister and I were growing up, the pressure from my parents was always to try and assimilate as much as possible, and just be like any other kid in our townThey didn’t teach us our native language (Farsi), we didn’t learn many of the customs and traditions, all in an effort to keep us from standing out more among the predominantly white community where we grew up (in Oakland County). But we did ultimately stand out, despite our parents’ hopes, because of the way we looked, and our names, and the insuppressible parts of our culture that came out inevitably. In some ways it was easier in the winter time, when our skin paled and we could “pass” more easily, but as soon as the sun emerged, we stood out more. My mom always hoped that our white neighbors saw me as Italian, which to her seemed like an “acceptable”—AKA non-Middle Eastern—ethnicity because she feared for our safety and dreaded the consequences of being seen as Middle Eastern in a white community. We didn’t own our cultural heritage, and in the effort to assimilate for survival, it was actively suppressed; but still we couldn’t blend in enough to avoid the consequences of being brown, and the children of immigrants, where we lived. 

My sister and I did not attend the same schools, so we couldn’t support each other while difficult things were happening. I remember being in middle school when 9/11 happened; I don’t think it was very long after that that I started hearing jokes and comments about how I could be a terrorist, or if I would get annoyed with something, that I was “going terrorist” on people. We didn’t talk about this at home; we were supposed to blend in, and let other people say what they were going to say even though it was harmful. These things kept going through high school, the same jokes, the same not-quite-fitting-in, the same names. Folks got more creative then, occasionally calling me a “sand n—-r” or other slurs. I felt that I didn’t have it as bad as other people of different backgrounds, who experienced more direct physical abuse, trauma, harassment or violence from others in the community—including law enforcement—and so we just continued to keep our mouths shut, because we needed to just take what came and keep trying to assimilate. 

It was different in college; I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and with the diversity there, it was much easier to feel at ease, like I wasn’t the only one like me there. For the first time, I had friends, teachers and people of color in my community. But I still didn’t quite feel like I fit in with other folks who looked like me; I’d grown up denying who I was for so long that in many ways I felt like a fraud trying to reclaim it, even though it would have been totally appropriate, and rewarding. I’m so glad, though, that I made the friendships that I did; so many amazing people were and are a part of my life still, and it’s amazing growing together with all of them. The same goes for medical school—you get close to people when you’re going through a shared, challenging experience, and the friends I made there helped solidify my path as a doctor and my identity as a brown person in America.

Living in northern (lower) Michigan has been amazing in so many ways. We all know how strikingly beautiful it is here, there are lots of really wonderful people building great communities here, and it’s awesome. But we still have issues to address. I remember being stopped by a law enforcement officer one winter because I had a headlight out on my car. I’d already bought the bulb to replace it, but we don’t have a garage and I was hoping for some slightly less painfully cold weather to swap it out. During the course of that interaction, the officer saw that I had a Leelanau County address, and then proceeded to let me know that it was [paraphrased] “good that I live here. Things might be different if you were one of those kids from Detroit”. I didn’t ask what he meant by that, but I had my suspicions. 

What has really pushed me to speak up more actively now was an experience that happened just before—and was then catalyzed by—the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. It was a Friday in May, and I had worked in the Empire clinic that day and was back home. I took my dog out to stretch his legs in the yard and check out our garden. After I came inside, I started making dinner when a pounding on our door caught my ear, alerting me to the presence of a Leelanau County Sheriff’s Deputy at our home. I was notified that they were called because someone who was house sitting next door saw a “suspicious person” outside, and decided to call the sheriff to investigate. I was asked to identify myself, confirm that I was the homeowner, learned that the deputy walked onto the land where we live and inspected things without announcing himself, and was then reassured that my rights to do what I want on my property were not being infringed upon. This shook me up. I was at home walking around my backyard, and someone saw me—maybe their dogs were barking at us, maybe they had a bad day, I have no idea—and decided that the sight of me alone was enough reason to call the police. I feel very fortunate that this encounter with the police went as smoothly as it did. Given the national history of police prejudice and violence against Black and brown people, I wonder how else it could have gone? I also wonder why the sheriff’s department thought that this was an appropriate call to send a deputy to investigate and approach someone in their own home? I hesitate to jump to conclusions prematurely—I think that serves me well personally as well as in my profession. But I have to wonder why no one called the cops on my wife, who is white, when she walked our dog in the yard that morning?

Working as a doctor has been an amazing experience in so many ways. I am committed to serving our community during the good and the challenging times in people’s lives by supporting their health and well-being. It’s been a privilege to be a part of increasing healthcare access for people in Leelanau and Benzie counties. Building relationships with people over time, and getting to know their families, is such a gift. People have been so welcoming of us as we started out in the Empire clinic in 2017. The vast majority of my experiences have been very warm and kind. But it’s still a shock when something offensive happens—whether it’s overt and in my face, or something that is said about me to others that I hear about later, or just the continuation of the day-to-day stressors that are present regardless of context. I remember when I was a resident downstate, I was asked by someone if I was “Iraqian”. I was stunned for a moment—there’s no such thing as being “Iraqian”, and wasn’t that bold to just ask the student in the room about their ethnicity without any reason? She decided to clarify for me, “You know, those ones we’re at war with?” I felt uncomfortable about that exchange for a while, and didn’t know who to talk to about it at the time. Folks have referred to me as “that Ayrab doctor”, though not usually directly to me. Like many other people of color before me, I have been asked over and over “Where are you from?”—often with the added request of “No, but where are you really from? Like, your parents?” This often serves to remind us that we are seen as different from the white members of the community, like there’s no way we could really belong here. I have to remind myself that, most of the time, we all just want to learn a little bit more about each other because we’re just curious. Sometimes though, unfortunately, I’m reminded that people want me to know that they think I don’t belong. That I look like I don’t belong, or my name is “weird” or “interesting”. 

I feel fortunate to have developed so many amazing relationships that I have, and I think sharing these experiences is important, because not everyone realizes that these things happen, and can be harmful even if people act with good intentions. Pity and disappointment are not the goals here; we should know what happens in our community and how it affects others so that we can all take responsibility and hold ourselves accountable for creating the kind of place we all want to live in happily and safely. As the political climate changes, and more demonstrations of racism, sexism, bigotry of all kinds become more visible, I have also noticed people being more visible with their kindness and compassion, the building of relationships to support and love others in our community, and I think that is such a beautiful thing. I’ve experienced various forms of racism, as have others with different backgrounds, and we’ve been connecting more to share our stories, support each other, and take care of each other in ways that I haven’t ever experienced before, and I can’t be more grateful for that. I see more Confederate flags, which causes pain for Black folks in particular, but is a common symbol of divisiveness and hate for many people of color as well. I also see more flags embracing pride, supporting Black Lives, etc. and I am encouraged when I hear more people bring support for these movements to the forefront.

I have only lived up here full-time for six years now, but even over this time I’ve seen how so much is changing for the better. I also need to acknowledge that I definitely have some privilege; privilege from being seen as male, as straight, as a doctor. These things confer benefits to me that folks in otherwise similar situations do not have, benefits that shield me from certain experiences that might otherwise play out differently. And yet certain painful things still do occur despite these privileges. It’s clear that there is still much work to be done to address and correct the systems of oppression that negatively affect Black, brown and Indigenous folks in our community, as well as the poor, members of the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized people. And still I can’t express how grateful I am to be part of such a beautiful and amazing community full of vibrant, warm, incredible people who relish and enjoy the beautiful land we all occupy, who respect, treasure, and welcome our differences, and who work so hard to make this amazing place one where all people can feel safe, and welcome, and joyful.