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Grey's Anatomy proves racism still exists — even if everybody doesn't see it

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

How Grey's Anatomy showed me the importance of talking about my own white privilege

In the 12 seasons Grey's Anatomy has been on the air, fans have seen and heard some pretty groundbreaking stuff. We've witnessed extraordinary operations, learned invaluable lessons and had our eyes opened to new and important perspectives.

I've been a faithful fan of Grey's from the beginning — when I first moved away from home, I used to watch it from whatever tiny apartment or hotel room my wanderlust had led me to and would call my mom afterwards to discuss.

And never, in the decade I've grown up with this series, have I seen or heard them have a conversation as important as the one they had tonight.

Well, in actuality, it was several small conversations embedded in the sweeping dither we've become accustomed to on our favorite medi-drama. Collectively, though, it was a singular dialogue Grey's was trying to further — that of race. Or racism. Race relations. White privilege.

This is not an easy conversation to have, yet it's so very pressing and necessary. I think Byron Williams said it well when he referred to it as a "verbal hand grenade."

In full disclosure, I am white. And, yes, I have blond hair and blue eyes. These are all observations that have been thrown back at me in comment forums on past articles I've penned trying to foster this particular conversation. I've been told I shouldn't have an opinion about racism because of those things. I've been told I'm actually racist in bringing up racism because of those things.

More: Why I told my sons about their white privilege

I've been told these things by other people who are white, which speaks to the very heart of tonight's episode of Grey's Anatomy.

It starts with Maggie venting to Amelia, Meredith and Alex about the new doctor Bailey hired to work alongside her. At first, the conversation starts under the broader umbrella of sexism. "It's the patients," Maggie says. "It's the way they always look to the man in the room, no matter who is talking." To this, Alex is oblivious, asking, "That's a thing?" And Amelia quickly chimes in, "Not for you."

Maggie continues. "And then there's the whole 'other thing.' I thought I was done with that here." Now, it is Amelia's turn to be oblivious. Realizing Maggie means racism, Amelia questions, "C'mon, is that a thing?"

There it is. The defense invoked by critics of this conversation everywhere — racism doesn't really exist. It's only a thing if you make it a thing. But I've never seen it.

In this scenario, Amelia plays the part most of us have played at some point: a well-intentioned white person who simply doesn't understand, because she can't. "I can't believe that," she says, doubtful. And Maggie, touching on intersectionality, responds, "It's 'cause it's not your thing."

Amelia, like many of us would do or have done, begins to look at her behavior in a different light. She realizes that perhaps she, too, has exhibited racist behavior at some point and, more specifically, when she took Jo's word over Stephanie recently. While scrubbing in for an operation, she seizes the moment to get reassurance that Stephanie didn't see things that way.

"You didn't think that was..." she starts, before Stephanie interjects, "No. I mean, it crossed my mind. But no," continuing, "It's always a possibility. It's always there."

Amelia is surprised by Stephanie's response. Confused, even. Amelia is me. Or you. Or anyone else who has never considered themselves a "racist" but at some point realizes we do live in a racially stratified society — and that sometimes makes us painfully unaware of internalized prejudices or externalized prejudices on the part of those around us.

Grey's captures a cross-section of this conversation beautifully in one of the final scenes from tonight's episode. In it, Amelia and Maggie are walking to their car when Amelia brings up the perceived issue with Stephanie. Maggie questions Amelia's motive for choosing her to talk to, and Amelia says the thing I know I've heard — and I suspect most black people hear — all too often, "See, this is exactly what I was worried about."

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The implication, of course, is that she has always suspected bringing race up in conversation would lead to conflict and confrontation by the black person on the receiving end. And then Amelia follows it up with that other thing being muttered more frequently every day, "God, I hate that this is even an issue all of a sudden."

Only, as Maggie so poignantly points out, it isn't.

"Well, it's not an issue for you. And it's not all of a sudden. I mean, it's not Mississippi Burning or anything, but it is all over. It's when people assume I'm a nurse. Or when I go to get on an airplane with my first class ticket and they tell me that they're not boarding coach yet. It's like a low buzz in the background, and sometimes you don't even notice it, and sometimes it's loud and annoying, and sometimes it can get dangerous, and sometimes it is ridiculous — like right now."

Because Amelia is a good person (and because someone can be capable of racist behavior and not be a racist, a notion that is hard to reconcile for many), she is worried that if she doesn't realize she is doing it, she won't notice to stop it. She needs reassurance that Stephanie knows she isn't a racist.

More: #WhatDoITellMySon about the way the world views our interracial family?

But here Maggie utters the words one can only hope fans heard and appreciated for the courage and brilliance it took to bring them up. "Look, did Edwards tell you that she's OK? Then don't give her the extra work of having to make you feel good."

She closes the conversation with genuine, honest and truly helpful insight. "This is not a small thing. I'm glad that you feel like you can talk to me about it, but I don't speak for all black people. I am not the spokeswoman. No one is. And it is kind of annoying to be asked questions like I am. But one piece of advice that I can give you, that I think we can all agree with, is that if you feel uncomfortable having done it, check your white privilege and don't do it again."

Check your white privilege. This isn't something that is easy for white people to hear, but can you imagine how hard it must be for a black woman to have to say? The reality is that racism is a thing. White privilege is a thing.

By nature, we are all imperfect. We all err, and we will all err in this conversation at some point or another. But the important thing is that we learn from those missteps, and the most important thing is that we're having the conversation at all.

Thank you to Shonda Rhimes and the rest of the Grey's Anatomy team for bringing that conversation onto national TV during prime time. Tomorrow, there is the possibility that everyone will go back to chatting about the hot new doctor, but tonight... tonight we are talking about this.

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