We Need To Talk About What A Doctor Looks Like

If you are asked to close your eyes and picture a physician, what honest and unedited image immediately comes to mind? A pharmacist? A psychiatrist? An investment banker? A professor? A leader?

Many would not be surprised to learn, that even within communities of color, the overwhelming majority of these mental representations are white male.

Of course, the battle for people of color to be granted access, to be acknowledged, and celebrated as competent and successful members of professional guilds is not new. As a young black female professional, with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a faculty appointment in the school of medicine at an Ivy league institution, I have become intimately familiar with aspects of this struggle over the course of my professional journey. Recently, in the wake of an incident on a Delta flight involving a young black female physician, a fresh wave of professional women of color have demanded that we take notice. Representing a variety of disciplines, these women are powerfully challenging the ongoing disparities in the ways that our society views professionals of color by sharing their stories and their faces under the hashtag #whatadoctorlookslike.

To refresh, on a recent Delta flight to Houston, a passenger began demonstrating signs of medical distress. When his condition escalated, flight attendants asked on the overhead speakers if a physician might be on board. Dr. Tamika Cross, a young black woman passenger and physician, signaled the flight attendant by pushing her call button and raising her hand. According to her reports, Dr. Cross was advised that the flight attendant team did “not have time to talk to her” as they were looking for “actual physicians.” A fuming Dr. Cross then watched as a white male approached the scene, reportedly verbally identified himself as a physician, and was immediately allowed to assist the passenger in distress.

In the wake of the incident, Dr. Cross detailed her experiences on social media and elicited a strong response from the community of color. Infuriating, saddening, heart wrenching and gutting stories of discrimination began to pour out in shockingly high numbers. Stories of questions and doubt about their professional memberships and abilities.

I cannot begin to overstate the complex layers of emotion that surged within me as I read of Dr. Cross’ incident. Initially, I felt rage, sadness, pain and discouragement. Over the course of my young life, which until the past handful of years was lived out in the conservative, southeastern United States, I have been met with an overwhelming number of personal and emotional injuries based on my race. In restaurants, in neighborhoods, in schools, in sports, in academics, in relationships and the list goes on. Injuries that have exacted blows so full and sharp that at times, when left unchecked and unprocessed, compromised my ability to feel proud of my identity as a black person. The strength and resolve required to overcome these episodes of discrimination in personal contexts is slowly deflated when facing the realization that even achieving the highest academic designation in the academy does not shield me, or other people of color, from those familiar injuries.

Of course, the stories of blatant and clear cut disrespect tend to ring loudly in our ears and spark our horror and outrage. However, I have become aware of another layer of feeling, and one that resonates beyond my initial response of anger. It is a wellspring feeling about the smaller and more subtle instances of hurt that I experience routinely in my work. It is the brief hesitation or pause, the confused glances, the momentary disequilibrium that is apparent on the faces of patients and families as I enter a treatment room and introduce myself as the leader and not the help. It is the moments in which I am mistaken by my own professional colleagues, with disturbing frequency, for other black women they know or work with. It is the feeling of almost being erased as an individual by way of being conflated with “other black people.”

What resonates is that the burden of responsibility for calling attention to these issues too often seems to rest squarely on our shoulders. We are in the position of not only naming, but justifying and defending our experiences. This responsibility, alongside the discrimination itself, it is a heavy burden and one that I feel exhausted, and enraged about shouldering.

Another layer still, as conflicting as this feels, is that when I hear of stories like that of Dr. Cross, my own difficult experiences feel validated. This is hard for me to acknowledge because, in some ways, it relies on others having painful experiences. But it is honest. Often, I have questioned my own vigilance to racial discrimination in professional situations. So too have others, and comments such as “I wouldn’t read too much into it,” when I have felt brave enough to venture a dialogue with another colleague, have periodically silenced me.

Space for conversations about gender and age as drivers of discrimination is limited. Smaller still is the space created for dialogues about race as a mechanism for these hurtful moments in professional contexts. I can certainly point to more than one moment in which I have been reluctant about broaching these conversations for fear of being accused of “pulling the race card.” However, in this moment, when the circumstances seem unequivocal, I am validated and able to say, “Yes! See! I knew I wasn’t being over sensitive. This is what has been happening to me!”

As I read about the incident, and the responses that followed, I also felt a layer of responsibility. It is the responsibility to ensure that we as black women professionals, educate, protect and support not only ourselves, but a rising generation of young, aspiring girls of color. Calling attention to these issues, despite the anger, exhaustion and hurt, may serve not only to validate and support ourselves and each other, but also serve to prevent others from internalizing the idea that the professional ranks are absent people of color. By refusing to tuck away the hurt -- risking the accusations of “playing the race card” -- and opening up dialogues and conversations, forcing eyes and ears to turn toward these issues, we can stand up against the voice of that flight attendant becoming our own. The voice that might keep us silent in our airline seat, with our hands down instead of raised, in a moment like Dr. Cross experienced.

Finally, I am reassured by a sense of pride that I feel for the bravery of the women coming forward and declaring their rightful places as leaders in their fields. I feel pride because as I read their accounts, I read about my mother, a black woman with two advanced degrees in nursing, who is a leader despite being raised in astonishingly impoverished circumstances by an illiterate single mother. I read about my older sister, a young, black, physician attending an academic medical center. She is a wonderful scholar, educator and practitioner. I read about my colleagues, my friends, and my trainees. I read about myself.

And so I, alongside other women, posted a photograph of myself on social media with my academic position and pedigree. Because I am here. And I am #whatadoctorlookslike.

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