Deploring racism isn’t enough: Addressing white privilege in medical school

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If you ask a group of medical students to raise their hands if they are, in fact, racist, I’d venture to guess that not a single hand would shoot up. And I don’t think they would be lying. I am sure that no student believes that he, she, or they are a bigot.

Many of us have committed our lives to care for patients regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Yet, despite that commitment, racism is intrinsically embedded into our culture, pervades our righteous perspective of our calling, and undoubtedly affects the care of our patients. We need a cultural and societal shift of seismic proportion to rid ourselves of institutional and structural racism, which, hopefully, would spawn more tolerant individuals and less discriminatory behavior. This is no easy task and will most likely take generations to accomplish. For now though, medical school staff are charged with the responsibility to teach us the impact of racial bias and, more importantly, how to avoid it.

So how does a group of educators strip preformed biases that have been cementing themselves for over twenty-two years from the minds of steadfast, test-driven medical students? Oftentimes, my school’s “bias in medicine” seminars consist of a group of faculty members, usually people of color, discussing the rampant prejudice in hospitals and throughout the medical arena. We hear from our classmates and staff how they have been personally affected by racial biases in the medical field as physicians and physicians-to-be. We are shown statistical figures illustrating astounding rates of fatality amongst black individuals compared to that of their white counterparts. The white patients are mentioned almost as a control. Lectures delve into health disparities based on race, which is absolutely imperative for us to comprehend, but that’s usually where it ends. We too often fail to discuss the root of these problems, the racial privilege of white people, and what we can do to create a real and powerful charge toward equity.

I am a 24-year-old, white, heterosexual, cisgender female. Throughout my life, I have garnered unearned privilege due to my identity and fair skin color.

During our class discussions on racism, it is usually people of color who speak up. They discuss how individuals sometimes assume their acceptance to medical school was the result of affirmative action, how the majority of attendings who serve as mentors are white, while the majority of students are not, and how when their badge is not visible when they walk into the hospital, the security officer immediately questions their intentions.

The other white students and I usually remain quiet and just listen during these sessions — we want to give our fellow students the space and time to discuss their personal experiences with, and fears of, racism. But as I sit quietly, absorbing the gravity of my classmates’ anecdotes, I wonder how we can ignore the flagrant unearned racial privilege I and the other white students have tacitly been living with.

My acceptance to medical school was accredited to my hard work and intelligence. I have a plethora of available mentors who look just like me, and in lectures, I almost exclusively see pictures of white men and women who have made major advances in medicine. I can walk into the hospital with no identification badge on display, and the security guard smiles at me. I can listen silently during a lecture on racism without feeling as though it is my duty to speak up on behalf of my race.

White privilege is always present, but it is rarely discussed. Our medical system favors both the white physician and the white patient. It is due time that we call out an ideation that reinforces a culture of white privilege.

As white medical students and physicians, it is time for us to acknowledge the privilege we hold and that the same system that has benefitted us our whole lives, has disabled others. While we alone may not be able to dismantle racism on a societal level, it is our duty to acknowledge our privilege and take an active role in addressing the pervasive racism ingrained in the medical system we are immersed in.

To effectively address this racism requires a three-pronged approach that allows us to explore our own biases, our own ability to be unintentionally racist, and the ways that we may be perpetuating systemic inequities. 1) We must collectively identify and acknowledge personal experiences of white privilege as individuals within our institution and society as a whole. Awareness is the first step to battling these intrinsic biases, but it is not enough to stop there. Through this recognition, we must develop a shared language across disciplines and institutions allowing for seamless communication amongst colleagues regarding racism and privilege. 2) With this shared understanding, we must work together to collaborate and strategize personal, institutional, and community-wide actions to refute this discrimination. This may include everything from required trainings, workshops, didactic lectures, to group discussions, all focused on the inequities present as both a healthcare worker and a patient. 3) We must pledge a lifelong dedication to end the pervasive racism in the medical field.

The option to remain passive in the fight for racial justice is another privilege granted to white people, but it is our monumental responsibility, our moral imperative, to take action.

Jessica Cranston is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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