Editorial: What A Doctor Looks Like
Just a few days ago, Dr. Tamika Cross took to Facebook to share with us her recent interaction with the Delta Airlines flight attendant (See Huff Post Article Here). I am disheartened to say that what Dr. Cross experienced is not uncommon, though the setting was obviously a little more shocking at 30,000 feet above sea level.
As minority women physicians, there exists an unsettling reality; far too often, our position, title, skill sets and credentials are pulled into question. We are challenged or unfairly audited while our equally, but often less qualified counterparts are afforded amnesty sheerly based upon their appearance and gender. The assumptions are typically not in our favor – the patient or even colleague would prefer to “wait for the doctor to arrive.”
The advocate for social justice in me wants to scream at the top of my lungs to the flight attendant who dismissed a well-trained black female physician — at that patient whose face even mildly cringes when I walk in the room — at that colleague who questions my ability without any preceding knowledge. In the loudest voice possible, I want to yell out, “WHAT YEAR IS IT?” and commence spouting out a laundry list of my credentials and accomplishments with a self-assured venom. But I stay calm. I choose to “go high”.
I stay focused, much like Dr. Cross did in the fuselage of that aircraft. In classic physician temperament, I reassess the situation: “What are my end-goals? The immediate priority, patient care; but do I have time to offer some education? Now, can I understand the motivations and biases in play BEFORE posing judgment. Is there room for me to help them understand their own prejudices, and can I help adjust their cultural and social lens?”
Of course, that inner angry black woman (yes, we all have her) vehemently objects, shouting “THIS AIN’T MY JOB” — unpacking and fixing your unjustified reliance on years of racism, sexism, and generalized ignorance disguised as socially normative behavior. Why do we have to be the harbingers of racial tolerance and gender equity, when it’s society that has held us back??? While blacks comprise about 13% of the general population, we represent a mere 4% of the physician workforce (of particular note, black women are approaching 60% of that black physician workforce). In whole, those numbers are underwhelming, and scratch the surface of a much larger issue (the diversification of medicine). But buried beneath that dialogue, black women physicians are confronting a real and palpable problem: the sense of professional isolation.
And so, I stay calm. As our predecessors before us have worked for generations to solidify our place within our profession, it is still our responsibility (even if done tirelessly on an individual basis) to provide that positive image – That Doc McStuffins that debunks all stereotypes. The reality of the situation must be acknowledged – that these conscious and subconscious biases continue to exist within our society, despite numerous advancements, or shifts in statistics over time. These biases were constructed with faulty foundations, brick made from misinformation and mortar poured from underexposure — and somehow continue to stand. I argue that we individually gain nothing from a response that is filled with emotion. Instead, we must lead from a position of affirmation, one that seeks to enlighten. Let that patient know who you are and what you can do for them. Prove to that colleague in the very next sentence that your knowledge is impenetrable, and perhaps even better than hers/his. Make that flight attendant humbly question every other passenger that she will ever meet – “Could you be another doctor?”
It is our collective voice that should reflect the emotion instead. I proudly posted my hashtags this morning:
We must continue to use social media and the screen to address bias and to allow the conversation to flourish. We must actively mentor and serve as role models within our communities so that children never even question what color Doc McStuffins is. We must influence the perception of our images.
I only argue that in allowing the deep-dwelling emotion to get the most of us during the heat of the moment, we fail to liberate truth, and distract from the point we seek to make. Thank you, Dr. Cross, for keeping your cool in a time of ridiculous confrontation. I can only hope that a little girl on that plane, or after hearing of your account, will one day emulate you and be called Doctor as well.