I am a strong, obstinate (albeit awkward) young Black woman in medicine. I think it’s a bit cruel that I have this personality when I have the gender and skin tone I do. It doesn’t help that I stand only 5 feet 2 inches. And though I decided to go to medical school because I wanted to help people — and I would argue that I have helped many people — this helping profession is not ready for me. That said, Black people and women require help and I am still in love with medicine and being part of this team, even though there is some brutality associated with this profession. Before I started medical school, I wish someone would have warned me about the brutality, and given me the following affirmations.
There is no such thing as “unprofessional” hair.
Your hair is professional no matter how it grows out of your head. You’re allowed to wear weaves, wigs, braids, twist outs, straightened, you name it. It’s honestly strange that we’re having this conversation. The only comments anyone is allowed to make about your hair is how pretty it is. If a patient is “bothered” by your hair, know that your hair does not impinge on your ability to be a competent and high-functioning clinician. If it bothers your colleagues, they need to find something else to worry about. If it’s hard to get your hair in a scrub cap provided, you can bring your own. But if you forget yours at home, take as many disposable scrub caps as you need to cover your head — when I have braids, I wear five. You don’t have to change your hair to fit into a cap. The cap is made to fit your head. In the event that you’re looking for something fun to wear to cover your hair, I love Kim Caps, BlueSky, and Amazon for high-volume hair.
No, they cannot talk to you like that.
You will be faced with an attending who thinks it’s OK to disrespect you. It isn’t. He — or she — isn’t allowed to tell you that you’re disrespecting him when you’re not. He is not allowed to ask you specifically what the “Black experience is” — you only know your own experience; you do not and should not have to speak for all Black people. He is not allowed to ignore you, yell at you, or speak to you disrespectfully when others are out of earshot. You’re allowed to report him. Your patients also can’t talk to you like that. Your education does not include learning how to be verbally assaulted. In the event that you are experiencing some kind of discrimination, talk to your dean or your clerkship director. If they don’t take it seriously, talk to the president of the university. If the issue continues, report the person to the appropriate state board of medicine or other licensure agency. If you believe something is particularly egregious, file a report with the local police department.
You can’t leave your body at home.
Just because our body shapes are different does not mean that we need to dress in ways that make us uncomfortable just to please our attendings and our friends. Our clothing, if it is the same as anyone else’s, is not inherently distracting because our bodies are in it. We are allowed to have hips and thighs without facing criticism for having these body parts. You don’t have to cover up more than anyone else because you have them. Leave those too-large pants at home if you don’t want to wear them. You do not have to wear extra loose scrubs to prevent people from looking at your body. Your patients are not allowed to comment on your body, nor are your colleagues. You are deserving of a safe and healthy work environment. You can ask nicely if you’d like to — and personally this is where I like to begin. If being polite is not working, I say it a bit differently, in a way that everyone can understand: “When you talk about my body, I am uncomfortable.” If it still doesn’t stop, file a report for sexual harassment. Things do not get better if change is not demanded.
You’re not unprofessional.
We take up space and people believe that when we ask questions and participate, we are unprofessional. People will say you ask too many questions on rounds or to your attendings, or that you were too rude when you framed something in the same way as your colleague. You were not offensive. You are allowed to be there and learn, to discuss what you read, to ask about randomized control trials. When the unprecedented professionalism complaints come up, you’re allowed to say these are lies based in racism, to bring up the history of access to the medical field, to hold people accountable. Their behavior must be taken seriously. You should tell the person directly if they are making you uncomfortable. If it continues, escalate it, and don’t stop until there is a resolution. Yes, there is a hierarchy in medicine, but it does not permit people to be disrespectful.
You don’t have to be better than everyone else to be adequate.
The Black Tax is a real thing — being twice as good to get half the credit. You should not and do not have to be fantastic to be taken seriously. You’re allowed to be mediocre sometimes. You’re allowed to not know something on rounds. You’re allowed to mess up. This is an inherent learning curve. You shouldn’t have to be significantly better than all of your colleagues to feel like you’re doing simply OK. If your scores differ from your colleagues’ because your grader is biased or racist, point out the discrepancies and make sure they are documented in writing.
And you don’t need to be superhuman: go to therapy. It is absolutely exhausting to fight by yourself. It’s OK that you’re having a rough time and having someone listen to you is going to be helpful. Find hope and comfort in your friends and family. Therapy for Black Girls was always a resource I loved using when I was in medical school since it helped me find out exactly who in my community was able to be my ally and help me through challenging times. Psychology Today’s website also is excellent as it can help you find a therapist in your community, gives you the race of the therapist, and can give you information about any special interests the therapist has. While it can be challenging to establish rapport with someone that you’re opening your heart up to, getting over the hump of struggling to find out whether or not they will understand your personal struggle can be mitigated if you can find someone who can relate to you.
You are deserving of mentorship.
You deserve to be taken seriously, to be developed, and to have your medical knowledge fostered, both in medical school and as a resident. It is the responsibility of everyone around you to invest in you. You are not a burden when you ask for mentorship. Find mentors who look like you. It’s not as awkward as you might think it would be to blatantly ask a Black woman about her experience in medicine. You can ask her about how you should wear your hair to your interviews, or where she bought her scrub cap. If she gives you her phone number, it’s OK to text her, to meet with her. If you both feel comfortable, you can ask about her family. It’s OK to wonder about how to raise children as a Black woman and as a doctor. While those working relationships can be awkward and murky, it’s better to have them and know someone is there for you. If you don’t feel that you’re being taken seriously, it’s OK to say that. Ideally, the mentorship relationship should be one in which you are able to be honest and upfront. Starting Day One, look for mentorship and ensure that it is with someone who is going to address the unique disparities you face — sometimes that mentor is a Black woman and sometimes it is not. That relationship is one that will be a sacred bond for the rest of your career. In my mentorships, I can be honest because I have built rapport. These are people who have been honest with me about where I stand in my training and what I need to do to get better. These are people who I trust to guide me moving forward. The basis of this entire relationship should be honesty and transparency as well as unique love for you.
Medicine is a cruel place for Black women. You’re exhausted by having to advocate for yourself on top of all the normal duties of being or training to be a physician. It’s OK to be exhausted, and even to leave. But it’s never OK to wonder if you’re right for this job. Because you’re more than strong enough and smart enough to do it. This profession may not be ready for us yet, but that is the problem of the system to fix, not yours. You are allowed to be here.
What advice do you have for fellow Black women in medicine? Share in the comments below.
Micaela Stevenson is an M3 at the University of Michigan planning to go into obstetrics and gynecology to become an infertility specialist. In her free time, she loves to watch love stories, but mostly like to sneak into work on the weekends and see extra patients.
Illustration by April Brust