How this physician deals with race-based comments

It seems like every other day, there’s a new discussion or debate which emerges about the unique challenges that minorities face in America. This is, of course, a sensitive topic, because minorities in any arena will always have their personal story. Whether it’s because of your color, or anything else that makes you feel like you face extra hurdles — there are indeed lots of ways in which society still has inherent biases.

Speaking as someone whose parents are from India, and grew up in England as basically the only non-white child in my elementary school, I certainly faced my fair share of racism growing up. I was teased and regularly called names — experiences that when they happen to you at a young age, stay with you. However, I can’t honestly reflect back and say that any amount I was called names and made fun out of, was any less than the kid who may have been the shortest in the class, or the fattest, or the one with the disability. Children are brutal, and will mercilessly pick on anything “different.”

To be fair though, I never once felt growing up in England that the system was trying to hold me back in any way, or do anything other than encourage me to reach my full potential. In an otherwise magnificent country with great people and a fair system. (Despite being immensely proud of my Indian heritage, I am so glad my parents moved out of India to seek better opportunity.) By the time I moved to America as a physician, 20 years after starting elementary school, England was actually a very different and more diverse place from the 1980s. My hometown now has plenty of children from ethnic minorities, and I’m sure any child growing up there today, would have a very different experience from what I had.

I feel privileged to have moved to America at this unique time in our history. Racial issues have of course plagued the United States since its founding. I watch the current news with interest, and have my own feelings about how this country should move forward in this aspect. (I also believe that the age of social media makes things seem much worse than they actually are.) Being a person of color who is a relatively recent immigrant, working in the medical field has afforded me an opportunity to deal daily with the general public. I’ve worked up and down the East Coast, serving a number of communities — ranging from very homogenous to very diverse. I certainly face my own share of regular race-based statements, and wanted to share 5 everyday comments I get. Afterwards, I will go over how I deal with them.

1. “Doctor, where are you really from?”

When people ask me where I am from, I always tell people that I was born in London and grew up just outside the city. I would say that over half the time, there’s this follow-up question: “But Doctor, where are you really from?” Most ethnic minorities know this question quite well, and there have been hilarious parodies made online. You can view one of these viral videos; that is a classic. Is the question really: “Where are your parents from?” or “What is your ethnicity?” I may have never been to India before, so I don’t know how by any stretch of the imagination, I can say that I am from there! The problem, and why minorities don’t like this follow-up question, is that you are only asking this question based on my color, after I’ve already told you where I am from. Along the same lines, it’s all too common to confuse “nationality” with “ethnic origin.” People get asked all the time what their nationality is, when actually the question is designed to elicit their ethnic background.

2. “How come you have a British accent?”

I obviously look Indian in appearance, but have a British accent. I am regularly asked: “How did you get a British accent?” Really? Would you be asking me that question with such confusion if I was white?! No, you wouldn’t. You would assume I was English and wouldn’t ask any further questions beyond that! I have also had other statements made to me, such as: “Your face doesn’t match your voice.”

3. “Do you get to go home to India very much?”

Sorry Sir, but India is not my home. I love visiting, and have the most amazing extended family over there — but no, it’s not my home.

4. “There’s lots of your people who go into medicine.”

What exactly does “your people” mean? The minute you say “your people” — you have classed me in a category and boxed me into a position where I am different from “your people.” Also, you don’t need to keep telling me how much you love Indian food or have some really nice Indian friends!

5. “I know this doctor who is Indian, do you know him?”

Sorry, but there are probably hundreds of thousands of Indian doctors. I don’t know every single one! Also, when I introduce myself and you say, “I met you last time I think” — sure enough, when I look back in the chart I see it’s another doctor who probably “looks like me,” but wasn’t me. And if I ever ask you to describe the other doctor who saw you before, whose name you can’t remember, please think twice before saying, “He’s the same color as you are.”

These are just 5 comments I hear every other day. How do I deal with them?

Well, I have just got myself to a point where I brush them off and get on with things. I would say that nearly all the time, they come from older people who are not as polished in the world of correct speech and what’s appropriate and not appropriate to say in public to people they don’t know — particularly in a professional setting where they only met someone a few minutes earlier. They are otherwise perfectly good people (who, by the way, are also sick and at a low point in their lives). That’s not to suggest that there aren’t occasionally some very unpleasant patients out there, who are openly racist and hostile towards doctors of color — but like so many other things in life, it’s the absolute minority who are at that extreme, and I personally don’t think I’ve ever met anybody like that. Physicians of color who have previously written articles about overtly bigoted patients, are right to draw attention to these horrible incidents — but this must also be put into the context of a minuscule subset of people.

I would also like to add that if we are talking about color, in the interests of honesty, a not insignificant number of patients and families who have asked me the above questions, have been people of color themselves! Black, South American and Asian. I know well, having traveled the world, that there isn’t a society out there that doesn’t struggle with issues of prejudice (and to be frank, I’m sad to say that some eastern countries like India and China, are in many ways probably worse with color prejudice than countries like America or England).

There was a time, probably in my late teens and early 20s, when I would have gotten myself very worked up and outraged if I had perceived a racial slip of the tongue from anyone, and heard any of the above statements. It’s an easy trap to fall into and becomes a vicious circle of eventually almost looking for reasons to be offended. Not only have I come to the conclusion that this is a self-destructive way to be — but I also think it just fosters a sense of constant hypersensitivity and also, yes, victimhood. I don’t want to be part of the current trend of getting super outraged over small everyday slips of the tongue and respond with anger to otherwise well-meaning people.

Take point number 2 above. When people ask me that now — I always smile and say in light-hearted jest: “Hey — we do have lots of brown people in England now too!” Most of the time, the questioner smiles with me, and usually realizes the inappropriateness of what they just asked.

For number 5, I typically laugh and say: “No, that was the other tall brown doctor!”

The truth is that there isn’t a soul among us who doesn’t face our own unique obstacles. Whether you are white, black, brown — male or female — there will always be issues that will irk us and make us feel victimized. But we all face a question: in an otherwise good, decent society and country — do we base our whole lives on this perceived sense of being a victim and be that hypersensitive individual, or do we adopt the attitude of bringing attention to issues, taking the higher road, but not being the angry and hurt person all the time? Again, that’s not to say that there aren’t very real problems out there, true bigots and prejudiced people — but these people are on the fringes in any society.

Turning on the news or reading peoples’ social media posts, one would sometimes get the impression that America is the most racist country in the world. I am not going to mince words when I say that I believe this is absolute nonsense. While we still have a long way to go and honor the hard-fought historical battles for equality, few countries in the world have come as far as America (or England for that matter) in acknowledging their past and bringing these issues to the forefront by having open and free debate. If these nations were truly that oppressive and discriminating towards minorities — it’s worthwhile remembering that in both England and America, Indians and many other Asian origin people are actually the highest earning and most successful ethnic groups, well above the average of the indigenous white population. That’s a fact you can look up for yourself. (Here are statistics on how the richest ethnic groups in America are not even white.) I actually think America is one of the least racist and most diverse places on earth.

I choose to deal with small everyday inappropriate comments with grace and humor, remembering that there is nobody in the world who doesn’t face their own battles. I refuse to make myself into the victim. I can still totally call out inappropriate language and behavior, but always keep in mind perspective of the bigger picture. We should also be careful, especially anyone in a minority, of imagining some invisible oppressor or becoming a “snowflake” to any hurdles life inevitably throws up. I could have just as easily titled this article: “5 everyday racist statements that show what it’s like to be a physician of color,” and painted the whole article in the light of being a victim in a world where I was facing horrible bigots all the time. But neither is that my reality, nor how I feel for even one moment (note that I didn’t even use the word “racist” in my title, which we now band around far too easily).

I was recently talking to a very high ranking educational leader from a top Boston academic center, who was telling me about how they were implementing a program to help all their students deal with “micro-aggressions” that happen to them during the day. When the definition of “micro-aggression” was explained to me, it sounded like any slight confrontation, disagreement, or unpleasant statement was being included, and the idea was to escalate the situation, confront the “aggressor,” and even involve authority. That’s all very well and good, but guess what, when anybody gets out into the real world — you will be faced with an avalanche of people you perceive as rude or saying inappropriate and insensitive things — for a multitude of reasons. If we are fostering a culture where people fall to pieces when they hear the smallest little thing and respond with perpetual outrage, it’s a mistake, and I certainly don’t want to be a part of it.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author. He is the founder, DocSpeak Communications and co-founder, DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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