Being a black female emergency physician gives one a dichotomous perspective of race and power in America. On one hand I am initially seen as a black woman and given the racist and sexist foundations in this country, to some I am seen as lesser, deficient, and insignificant. However when I am acknowledged as a physician, I am treated with respect, praise and dignity. At times these conflicting experiences happen simultaneously. Within a patient-family interaction I may be mistaken for a nurse, applauded for doing “well for myself” as a black person, and asked where I trained to check my credentials; all within five minutes of introducing myself to the family.
But what is interesting is that the effects of racism do not only exist in the social interactions with patients. They exist in the medical training of physicians. As I reflect on my own medical college education over 15 years ago, I realize that I myself, a black woman has propagated scientific racism.
Every medical student is studious and focused. We consume what is taught by our professors, study and commit to memory the “facts” and apply these facts and lessons clinically. We all can close our eyes and recite the typical history of presentation of any patient that might present in an emergency department. “A 55 year old Latin woman presents with chest pain and shortness of breath for 3 days”. We state the initial biological factors of the patient that will help stratify the patients risk for disease. Later on in our presentation we will state the family history and social factors that also impact the patients risk for disease.
However placing race paramount to a social factor, and in the category of a biological determinant, supports unfounded truths that race is a biological fact. Scientifically speaking there is no genetic or biological difference between races. But then how can we account for the health disparities seen between races? The fact is health does not occur in a vacuum, and the social environments affect risk of disease as well as the sex of a patient. We understand this when we ask about exposures to alcohol, drugs and poverty. Perhaps race should be placed in this area. But in order to place race in a social category, medical students should learn the impact of race on health from a historical point of view. It is necessary to observe how racial inferiority permeated medical education as fact and how these racial myths served as the basis for scientific injustices throughout our modern history. Acknowledging our history is necessary to stop the proliferation of racial injustices in medicine and appropriately treat all of our patients.
The Feminem Fix 2017 conference served as a platform to discuss this and many other difficult issues in medicine. I am honored and humbled to be able to discuss scientific racism in this setting and I hope you will listen to my talk and be inspired to be the change we need to better take care of ourselves and our patients.
Watch the full FIX17 talk below!