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Not the Housekeeper: Fighting Racial Bias in Medicine

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Why must I constantly battle your perception of who I am?

I am an American whose skin is a fantastic brown, yet you label me the color black.

Don’t get it twisted, I am a proud American of African descent, but as far as I can see, my family photos do not reflect individuals of that deep and rich color of some Africans. Even Africans not diluted by America’s history are not black by Crayola’s standard.

I’m not mad, I’m just saying that this label black as color is an inaccurate description of my skin color and happens to be filled with stereotypes about who I could or could not be.

In fact, I reject the color. From now on, on the demographic surveys, I am checking 'other' and writing in caramel. Like caramel, I can take on many forms, I am composed of many things, and I am smooth like butter in everything that I do.

Why do you mistake me for housekeeping? Is it because the majority of the cleaning staff have shades of caramel like me? Is that the only role that you think caramel people can aspire to in the hospital setting? So this long white coat that I have draped across my arm does not give you the hint that perhaps I am not housekeeping?

Why do you mistake me for the nurse? Is it because I am a woman? Is it because I am a woman wearing scrubs? So this long white coat with MD embroidered onto the pocket means nurse to you? I’m not dissing nurses, but I am not the nurse. MD translates into medical doctor.

Why do you mistake me for the pharmaceutical rep? Is it because I am fashionably dressed in my favorite navy suit jacket, crisp, striped, collared shirt, and I am killing it in my Prada pumps? Perhaps it is because I can’t possibly look like a doctor with my beautiful natural twists crowning my head like the queen that I am? What’s that you say, I look too young to be a doctor? Oh really, since when did you become the expert in identifying what doctors are supposed to look like? Please know that I get it from my momma!

When I visit a mentor in the expensive Alzheimer’s care unit in an upscale neighborhood, why do you presume my presence is for the task of a paid feeding assistant? Oh, so the official uniform for feeding assistants is an Adidas sweat suit and sneakers? Shouldn’t they have an ID badge and a uniform? No, I’m not the feeding assistant. And when you promote me to possibly being the hospice nurse, let me inform you of who I really am.

I usually don’t like to flex like this, but I assume that you have prejudged me because I am caramel. I don’t usually like to reveal that I am a physician outside of work, but my interaction with you has forced me to take a moment to enlighten you that you should not be so quick to assume. You can call me doctor, and it is nice to meet you. You don’t need to know my first name because you don’t have permission to be casual with me. I am an anesthesiologist that has subspecialty training in Neuroanesthesiology. I am one of the more senior faculty members as an Associate Professor because of my very successful track record in teaching, research, publications, and patient care. Even more, I am the Program Director for the Anesthesiology residency program which means that I am the most senior person responsible for the overall training of 56 anesthesiologists in training. In a nutshell, all of my roles are sort of a big deal and you will give me my respect. Your assumptions and biases should make you feel embarrassed but I suspect you don’t because based upon your response, you seem to lack insight.

Accomplished Americans come in all shades and I reject your stereotypes. I hope that the next time you encounter a caramel person, you remember me before you jump to conclusions.

Dr. Demicha Rankin completed her Anesthesiology residency training at The Ohio State University in 2010 and subsequently remained as a faculty member. As the Program Director and Associate Professor, she has demonstrated great reliability as an educator and enthusiasm for medical education research. 

Image by yod67 / Shutterstock

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