I hate talking about race.
I think most other people of colour feel the same way. It’s mentally exhausting and feels weirdly self-serving. There’s also the issue of people having different experiences of racism. I am a relatively light-skinned South-Asian man. I know that darker-skinned South-Asians probably have things worse than I do. Black and Indigenous people, as well as people at intersections of race, gender, and sexual orientation, face challenges that are different from mine. As a result, I’ve generally steered clear of the topic.
But on May 25th, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. The brutality captured on video sparked public outrage around the world. For the first time in my life, it seems like society is ready to confront racism. Maybe now is the time we may change.
In medicine, people have spoken about inequities in medical school admissions, racism in training programs, and even differential treatment of patients based on their background. Here in BC, stories have arisen of healthcare providers in our emergency departments playing racist games involving guessing the blood alcohol level of Indigenous patients. These problems, which have been common knowledge among people of colour for years, are finally being recognized. Finally, our experiences are up for discussion.
Finally, our experiences are up for discussion.
I am a Doctor. I lost count long ago the number of times I have been confused for an allied health professional. Female physicians face a similar problem, often being mistaken for nurses. For some reason, staff most commonly mistake me for a Respiratory Therapist. (Maybe a lot of young brown dudes are going to RT school these days.)
Recently, I examined a patient and spent time explaining their diagnosis and treatment plan. When I asked if they had any questions, the patient wanted to know if I was the porter. Don’t get me wrong, RTs, nurses, and porters are essential parts of the healthcare team, but they aren’t what I’ve trained my whole life to do.
These sorts of experiences are the background noise – small, nearly-daily occurrences which people of colour tolerate. They are punctuated by more extreme examples of racism. My most bizarre experience occurred when I was in my first year of medical school. After explaining that my parents were born in Africa, one of my white classmates called me the N-word. This occurred in the lecture hall on UBC campus.
These sorts of experiences are the background noise – small, nearly-daily occurrences which people of colour tolerate. They are punctuated by more extreme examples of racism.
Earlier this year, while I was rotating in the lower mainland, I was blocked, physically blocked, by a white nurse from entering the ICU. She was convinced that I was trying to sneak into the ICU. It took me a few minutes to convince her that I was, in fact, a doctor, and was allowed to enter the ICU to see my patients. She didn’t stop any of the other people entering the ICU before me.
Racism makes going to work hard. When you don’t know if you’ll be confronted with racism, it is hard to let your guard down and focus. For the most part, I don’t think people typically intend to be racist. No one comes to work thinking, “I’m going to ruin a brown person’s day today!”.
The vast majority of these are caused by unchecked subconscious biases. (Except, perhaps, that seriously confused student from first year.) But if my experience is at all representative, we have significant space to improve. Confronting racism involves a lot of hard work and uncomfortable conversations. But for the sake of our future doctors, it is a task that belongs to all of us.
When you don’t know if you’ll be confronted with racism, it is hard to let your guard down and focus.
I’d challenge anyone who reads this to call out racism next time they see it. If you are involved in leadership, think about how you can use your influence to combat racism. It’s time that we take this conversation off of social media and into board rooms and meetings.
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