Be an upstander and not a bystander


I am a female immigrant gastroenterologist from Pakistan, practicing in the city of Minneapolis. Having lived in this country for 22 years and married to a white man, I generally feel that I fit in pretty well. A couple of weeks ago at work, I walked into a procedure room and introduced myself to a 66-year-old white male from St. Cloud that I was about to do a procedure on. There were three other people in the room, a nurse, and two techs with me. I explained the procedure in my usual cheerful voice and asked, “Do you have any questions?” like I always do at the consent process.

The patient said, “Yes, I do. Where’s your burqa?” I was quite taken aback and wondered if I misheard.

Me: “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

Patient: “I said, where’s your burqa?”

Me, confused: “Sir, why would I have a burqa?”

Patient: “Don’t women like you wear one to cover themselves?”

Me (more confused): “What do you mean women like me?”

Patient: “Well, aren’t you from Pakistan or Afghanistan? Aren’t you Muslim?” I was at a loss for words and desperately wanted to end the conversation.”

Me: “Let’s not talk about me but about your procedure. Any questions about the procedure?”

The patient replied, “no,” and we went ahead with the procedure and the rest of the day.

The incident bothered me all day and the following many days. I couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was and brushed it aside and stopped thinking about it. In the wake of recent events, it dawned upon me that it wasn’t the patient’s comments that bothered me. It was the fact that no one standing in the room witnessing the conversation stepped in. Not during the conversation, and not after. Considering I’ve worked with my colleagues every single day, and in the same place for the last 12 years, I felt strangely betrayed.

Stories like this happen every day and are sadly more common than we realized. There will always be racist, insensitive, inappropriate comments by people across life. Its how we react to them is what will shape our lives. Most individuals have asked how they can help. Well, start by being an upstander and not a bystander. That will mean the world to us, people of color, and immigrants.

And let’s start teaching and training students in medical school, nursing, and technical schools how to identify and stand up to inappropriate comments. It may take us a few generations to make seismic changes, but we must start now.

Aasma Shaukat is a gastroenterologist and can reached on Twitter @aasmashaukatmd.

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