Experiences in racism of a female resident physician

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I am tired. I am tired of you telling me how to respond to racism. I’ve experienced racism and microaggressions as a brown woman my entire life. You have been trying to control my response for just as long. Stop.

In high school, when another student told me to “go back to Africa” and I responded that those comments were not acceptable, you – my classmate – told me to sit down, be quiet, and don’t engage. Stop.

Then you – my principal – pontificated that I had provoked the statement by excelling in academics, that I needed to be more careful as excelling was perceived as threatening. Stop.

We shared experiences with racism as resident physicians during a recent peer discussion. I described a situation where a geriatric patient expressed a microaggression, which I ignored. I articulated that sometimes in a patient-physician encounter, it is hard to formulate a response at the moment with enough grace not to alienate the patient. As a response, you – my fellow resident – told me that I was part of the problem and that it was my responsibility to always respond to racism and educate people. It was my responsibility to put an end to racist behavior. Stop.

Recently at a professional meeting, policies were proposed acknowledging racism as a public health crisis, and that race is a social construct that is not founded on biology or genetics. When it came time to discuss, you – seasoned physicians – countered that the intent might be sound; however, these policies were not relevant to the mission of a professional group of physicians. You then opined that health care disparities between different races are due to genetic differences, not systemic racism. Stop.

A sports medicine physician told me once that every concussion is different. By definition, a concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury.  A concussion manifests with varied symptoms in different people. Even a repeat concussion in the same person can have an entirely different course than the last. Usually, I describe concussions as “brain bruises” to my patients. Every brain bruise is different.  They take time to heal, but all concussions have the potential long term sequelae, especially repetitive ones. They can impact emotions, processing.

Experiencing racism is like sustaining a concussion. We respond differently every time, depending on the injury. Many different factors influence the response, and we cannot always predict how we will respond at the moment. Sometimes we do not know how to respond. Sometimes we don’t know where to begin. To put it simply, at times, we are in shock. Not responding to racism does not imply consent to racism when you are being victimized. Every response is different depending on the injury. Sometimes I want to counter racism with a verbal odyssey of antiracist education or a simple “that is not appropriate.”

When I respond to racism, you tell me to be quiet. When I don’t respond to racism, you tell me to speak up and that I am part of the problem. I’ve experienced racism my entire life. You have been trying to control my response to racism my entire life.

Next time you try to dictate my response to racism. Stop.

Crystal Cobb is an internal medicine-pediatrics resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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