Sigma Alpha Epsilon – Handling Racial Issues In Medicine

You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me. This quote is from the racist chant recently gone internet viral sung by members of the SAE fraternity in Oklahoma. These students do not understand the shame they are bringing upon themselves with their expression of pure ignorance. These are not words you would expect to hear in a “post-racial society”.  As I considered the impact of this slur on the minority students at this university, I asked myself: What if an overtly racist scenario occurred not on a private bus, but in the hospital?  What do you do in a situation in which you are confronted with racism in medicine? How do you handle yourself even if the insult is more subtle? It is not always as overt as a chant about lynching.  Sometimes, comments and statements can be made due to unconscious bias and microaggression. Fortunately, there are ways to handle these issues in manor that can bring about small triumphs in race relations.

Medicine is unfortunately not exempt from racial issues. An underrepresented student may have many difficult situations to encounter.  I dealt with my own interactions that involved unconscious bias, racism, and microaggression.  My experience in medicine began while I was interviewing for medical school in 2008. This was my first interview and I had prepared for questions about my research, what I had recently read, the reason why I want to be a physician, etc.  I actually practiced President Obama’s pattern of speech; I would comfortably pause without saying “um” and give myself time to think of a well developed answer. I was excited about my first interview and ready for any question… or so I thought.  The interview started normally; he asked about my volunteering experience in college and why I wanted to go into medicine. However, it soon took a turn for the worse. He then followed his question with: “All minorities are poor and from the inner city, but you and your family have some education. How do you deal with that?” I paused, not the President Obama pause, a longer one. I was waiting for him to redeem himself, and then realized he was not going to do so. I had two options to handle this situation, and I chose the constructive one. I said, “What you may not understand doctor, is that African Americans share a culture. We share a vernacular and an art. So, my education level does not take away from my ability to relate to other African Americans.” After that, he then followed with a sexist question about women dropping out of medicine because they “keep getting pregnant”… the interview was over.  To handle this situation, I calmly provided an intelligent response and later wrote to the school. I told them that his question was derogatory and he should no longer interview another student. They wrote back to me with a long apology and hoped this would not deter my choice of accepting their offer.  It did.

As a premedical student, I experienced an unexpected mircroaggression. I represented a chapter of the Minority Association of Pre-health Students at an activities fair during orientation. One parent approached me with a flustered expression and asked:  “Why do you have to have a group just for minority students!” “Why can’t other students join the group?!” I was taken aback by his aggressive tone towards a young college student. Was this racism? Was he accusing me of reverse racism? I had no clue. Although I was a bit startled, I explained the purpose of the organization. “We accept everyone in this organization. However, it is dedicated to providing information, support and guidance towards underrepresented students interested in going to medical school.” Anyone can join and we will work together in learning about the steps towards medicine; however, the mission of the group is to improve diversity in medicine (similar to DiverseMedicine).” The parent had no response and he stormed away. These scenarios are not always obvious in terms of whether there is bias, ignorance, or outright racism involved. However, I was not going to lose my integrity. It was better to explain myself thoroughly and that seemed to work.

The scandal with SAE has taught us that bringing ignorance to light can initiate a constructive conversation on campus and around the country. It is difficult not to get angry, especially considering what African Americans have been through over time. However, you have to keep in mind that racism comes from ignorance.  We have to maintain our integrity and professionalism. Imagine if President Obama reacted to every unconsciously bias comment or racist caricature. He would have a hard time trying to run the country.  Instead, he continues his initiatives and surrounds himself with positivity. He keeps his eye on the prize and his mind on what matters. In medicine, that is what we need to do in similar situations.  What matters is our patient care abilities, integrity, aspirations, will power, and kindness.  By keeping steady and focused, you make others who identify with SAE evaluate their motives and beliefs.  Set an example of strength for your colleagues and be a part of the discussion to improve race relations in the medical field and in this country.