iremember driving to the hospital with my mother when i was 6 or 7. we pulled up to the physician parking lot, but the attendant refused to open the gate, telling my mother the lot was for physicians only. “i am a physician,” she said, “and i work here.”
i’d accompanied my mother to the hospital enough times to know this was abnormal. when i asked her why the attendant didn’t want to let us in, she explained to me that sometimes people see only the color of your skin.
i would feel the sting of that lesson again and again in the decades that followed. i learned to shoulder the burden of being black in america. but even after a lifetime of living with the (not so) benign buzz of racism, i was unprepared for the bolder forms of bigotry i would encounter as a medical student.
i recently wrote an essay about the racism i experienced in medical school, including the time a patient referred to me as a “colored girl” — and the senior physician in the room said nothing. i’ve received hundreds of comments. some readers told me to “grow a thicker skin” or “stop looking for racism in every corner.” one tweeted: “people are not responsible for creating a safe space around you.”
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but others came forward with empathy and advice, sharing experiences that helped me put my own struggles in context and helped me think through ways of combating racism.
from all of you, this is what i have learned:
we don’t know how to talk about racism
it was difficult for me to open up in my essay, not only because it forced me to relive painful episodes, but also because it forced me to focus on the fact that some people fundamentally believe my place in the world is predicated on my skin color.
i learned from readers that i’m not alone. racism permeates medical educationand medical practice, and it has for decades.
reader after reader told me they were well-aware of these issues but didn’t know how to address them. they had no idea how to respond to a racist comment from a patient or a colleague — or a medical school professor.
“no one knows what to do, so no one does anything,” said rebecca “becca” dirks, a classmate of mine at the university of virginia. “we took cultural competencycourses, but they were lacking in actually giving me tactical tools,” she reflected. “i feel unequipped to deal with that kind of situation.”
doctors are generally not trained in how to handle those difficult situations, said dr. sue taylor, the former medical director of palliative care for tucson medical center in arizona.
this is a problem.
as doctors, we recognize that our patients are often stressed and in pain; some readers reminded me that we should be able to “rise above” any rude remarks and focus on delivering care. but that said, we should expect — and insist on — professional respect.