“I have a question… ” an eight-year-old smiled at me as I listened to his heart and lungs. I removed my stethoscope. “Why are you Black?” I chuckled a little but truthfully, I was stunned.
“Because that is just how God made me,” I said in my native Southern accent.
I pondered how being back home brought it out with ease. It was amazing how second nature code-switching had become over the years. I then wondered, was the child curious about me as a Black person, a Black woman, a Black doctor? Even still, something told me the child had his own notion of what a doctor “should” look like. I struggled a bit with which intersection of my identity he found so intriguing. Alas, I shook it off like so many times before.
Fast forward two weeks, I had another encounter with a five-year-old. We had a playful interaction after the rough experience of getting swabbed for COVID-19. After a few moments, I reassured Mom that the rapid testing was negative. The child happily swung his legs back and forth on the exam table.
“I have never seen a Black person before!” he exclaimed.
I turned around to look at him. “Really? Well… ” I nodded.
“Again?” I thought to myself, astounded. I plastered on that familiar smile. Mask on.
His mother flushed bright red and blurted out, “Is she not pretty?!”
I smiled again, attempting to reassure her, as if to say “I understand how transparent kids can be.”
“With COVID-19 these past few years, we have pretty much been at home… ” she looked down, mortified.
“I hear you… ” I said — a phrase I had become all too accustomed to using. It is a phrase I am glad to have in my armamentarium. “Well, I am glad to meet you and hope you get to feeling better soon!” I said. His mom smiled again, apologetically. “Take care,” I added as I walked them out. I sighed. Mask off.
In the face of honest curiosity, microaggressions, misunderstanding, misrepresentation and lackluster support, underrepresented minorities bear an incredible burden. In my attempts to debrief these encounters like countless before, I realized how incredibly important my job as a clinician educator has become. The intersectionality of my identities, in my experience, has a notable impact within the confines of the exam room and far beyond. I hold my responsibilities to education, recruitment, mentorship and patient care in the highest regard. It is a humbling reality that I am one of very few Black women in my field, let alone in my position in academia. As such, I have a responsibility to advocate for greater representation in medicine, primary care and academia. I have a duty to mentor young men and women of color who aspire to work alongside me. I am committed to educating my peers on the reality faced by underrepresented minorities by sharing my own story. I am determined to defy the silence that has condoned a status quo built to isolate and marginalize people of color on a larger scale.
Undoubtedly, I have been blessed with many brave and unapologetic Black women who have mentored me every step of my journey. I now understand that my truth has the power to change lives from the exam room to the classroom to the boardroom and every room in between. While I have experienced reactions of surprise, curiosity and hesitancy surrounding my identity, I press forward for those special moments when I find myself across the table from those who share my history. Sometimes with smiles and other times with tears, we see and understand each other in a way that seeks to heal the overwhelming trauma of our past. Guard down. “I am so glad to see you,” and “I have been looking for you” are words that make this more than a job, but a true calling. Mask off. “Girl, me too… ”
Rest assured: I too am the face of medicine.
Author’s note: A special thank you to my biggest supporters and parents, Jerry and Melissa Saner who are unwavering in their support and have paved the way for me to promote Black excellence. To Dr. Brenda Latham-Sadler, thank you for instilling the confidence in me to excel and for providing a phenomenal example to be aspired toward.
Image credit: Custom image provided by the author for this Mosaic in Medicine piece.