The team stood around the older woman’s bedside. As one of the medical students, I prepared to meet my assigned patient. While being assigned to me, Mrs. R yelled, I’m not letting that n***** take care of me!
As the only Black person in the room, her words meant for me hung in the air. Frozen in place, my heart racing, I fantasized walking out of the room. Without a break in the conversation, my third-year resident, the most senior on the team, used his superpowers of whiteness, maleness, and seniority to inform Mrs. R that her bigoted behavior distressed the team. He granted her a choice. She could change her attitude, or we would help her find another hospital.
Forty-eight hours later, arriving at the ward, I learned that she transferred to another hospital in the middle of the night. My third-year resident chose to be my ally. He set a tone for the team and reminded everyone my skin color didn’t allow anyone, including a patient the right to disrespect and degrade me. He used his superpowers for good.
There are three prominent aspects of our superpowers. Number one, we all have privileges afforded to us in society. You may be male or tall. You achieved a high level of education or inherited lots of money. You may be socially agile or recognized as being pretty. You may be white. You may be abled-bodied or straight. You may have been born here.
The second often frustrating aspect about superpowers is they sometimes allude you. When you hold a privileged position in society, that privilege offers a buffer to the effects of that social condition. The advantage becomes the “norm” for you. One strategy for identifying your privileges is to listen to the stories of those who are at a disadvantage. Don’t be quick to discount the stories about patients refusing care from the colleague with the foreign accent or sexual harassment continually occurring in the hospital. Just because it has never happened to you, doesn’t mean it never happens. These stories are the key to stepping into and owning your privileges, your superpowers.
The third aspect of the superhero is having the discernment for how and when to use your superpower. The most important thing to realize is when you decide to embark on a courageous act or conversation, is to understand your role, to act from conviction, not emotion, and to understand the ramifications.
So, I encourage you to identify your superpower. Imagine you could become the superhero that saves the day on rounds, or helps boost team morale, or secures the opportunity to strengthen a special relationship. Remember, everyone has one or more superpowers. Identify your privileges and commit to using them for good. Advocate for others in situations where their social position, medical condition, race, country of origin, LBGTQ status, disability, size or gender, or rank in a medical setting sets them up for discrimination or harm.
I guarantee your life in medicine will be more vibrant, friendships and collegial relationships develop and flourish for a lifetime. Teams have the opportunity to thrive and do great things for patients and their families.
Stacie Walton is a pediatrician and can be reached at The Culturally Competent Mindset.
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