A medical student’s story of racism and bias

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I am a third-year medical student at what I believe to be the most diverse medical school in the country. Every year our entering class is made up of at least 20 percent of students who identify as underrepresented in medicine. Beyond that, we make it very clear that if fighting against health and social inequities is not a thread of the very fabric of who you are, this may not be the best place for you. As a result, for the first two years of medical school, I lived in a bubble. I was surrounded by classmates, faculty, and staff who not only looked like me, but fought for me in every instance possible. I was comfortable and, in my comfortability, I became somewhat complacent. Now do not get me wrong, there were instances of racism and bias throughout my first two years of medical school. However, my classmates and I quickly reported them, and the issues and perpetrators were addressed.

Six weeks ago, I started my third year of medical school, and to be honest, things have drastically changed. Our population is made up mostly of Black patients. We are located on the South Side and have the pleasure of treating some of the most underserved and resilient people I have ever met. I truly love it here and will always love it here. However, that deep love for my fellow students, staff, and faculty was recently put in jeopardy. One morning during my 4th week of 3rd year, I walked in to see my sickest patient thus far. I had grown attached to her and looked forward to seeing her every single day. I put my gown and goggles on. Before walking into the dark room, I saw there were two white women in there. I walked in to put gloves on and was met with an immediate “Are you here to take out the trash?” I was initially confused and responded, “No, I am a third-year medical student.” The same individual, who I recognized was my patient’s night nurse, said, “Oh, I thought you were here to do that because sometimes they wear black pants.” I responded, “My scrubs are navy blue.” She must have realized that she made a mistake because she apologized and then began to provide me numerous updates about my patient. I said thank you and shifted my focus to my patient.

I have not forgotten about that interaction and will never forget about it. I still wonder to this day what the nurse meant by “they.” However, this nurse most likely moved on with her day. That is one of the main issues of incidents of racism and bias. The perpetrator moves on with their life while the recipient is left to wonder why that happened to them and how they can address a system that thinks less of them. When that incident occurred, it was obvious to me that the nurse did not believe that a Black woman could be part of the patient’s care team. I have always known that as a Black woman in medicine, I will face racism and bias. I just did not expect it to hit me in the face on a Wednesday morning as I went to see my favorite patient.

I am left wondering what would have happened if I was the patient’s daughter, niece (who she said I reminded her of), or friend. The nurse made a quick judgment based on my physical characteristics, and she was completely incorrect. I am blessed to be able to challenge people’s implicit bias on a daily basis. When I walk down a hall in the hospital with my medical student badge, I feel both proud and out of place. Medicine has a long way to go in terms of making sure that people of color who are underrepresented in medicine feel comfortable, welcomed, and included wherever they go. It starts with making sure we do not make quick judgments when we see Black people and assume that they are there to take out the trash.

Akosua Y. Oppong is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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