A Brief Guide for Reading About Paulette Leaphart (Especially if You’re White)

Editor’s note: Since this piece was written, some of Paulette Leaphart’s claims have been called into question.

When I saw this ESPN story about Paulette Leaphart, I thought, “She’s incredible. Heroic.” Leaphart, a breast cancer survivor, social worker and mother, recently walked topless for over 1,000 miles to show her double-mastectomy scars to lawmakers in Washington, DC, and put a face to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who still struggle to pay for health care, and did it — out of necessity, with her eight-year-old daughter in tow. I wanted people to know about her.

In the next moment, I realized how many strikes Leaphart has against her in the eyes of a lot of folks. I recalled countless conversations I’ve had (in person, online), with people who might look at that headline and look at that photo and not see what I see. I could hear the conversations already.

So for those people — white people mostly, yeah — let me try to preempt. With respect (if disappointment) and a leaping heart, I offer this brief Reader’s Companion to the story of Paulette Leaphart, my hero. [Note: A lot of these thinking points can be applied elsewhere.]

… If you’re thinking, I can’t believe she makes her little girl walk, notice the part about how she pushes her daughter most of the way and that they “hold hands during the scary parts.”

… If you’re thinking, That girl should be in school, consider that they’re keeping track of the geography and wildlife of the journey, think of what she’s teaching her daughter about the social and political infrastructure of the US by preparing for and making the trip. It’s something which a lot of parents do: take their children out of school for an experientially rich, educational, once-in-a-lifetime trip.

… If you’re thinking, Why doesn’t she go get herself a job instead of complaining, read that middle paragraph that starts: “Sitting under…” about how being sick under the country’s current health care plan kept her from working while costing her everything, and consider that she’s still doing social justice work in that she’s giving up her time and comfort to try to make a difference for people beyond herself, which is probably something you probably value in a lot of people you admire.

… Also: Think about the fact that nothing about walking across the country with a small child is the EASY way to do anything.

… And, just as an exercise, ask yourself how you might see her story differently if she were white. Just in case.