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Over the past few days, social media has been on fire with the story of Dr. Tamika Cross, who was flying on Delta when a flight attendant asked for a doctor to help a passenger in medical distress. Cross tried to jump in, but the flight attendant dismissed her, not believing the young black woman offering to help was a physician.

Cross posted the ordeal to Facebook: “She said to me: ‘Oh no, sweetie put [your] hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.’”

Actual physicians. After a decade of schooling, after finishing medical school and starting my residency, it’s maddening when people misunderstand the role I play in the clinical setting — even when I’ve introduced myself, I’m wearing my credentials, and I’m wearing my long white coat.

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I’ve been in Cross’s shoes. Many black doctors have.

Two days before Cross’s ordeal, I was performing a neurological exam on a patient, testing her strength and her reflexes in her arms and legs. In the middle of the physical, a food services employee walked into the room and interrupted the exam to take the patient’s meal order.

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“What would she like for lunch?” the man said, clearly not seeing that I was in the middle of treating the patient.

Not again, I thought.

In her post, which has been shared tens of thousands of times and has spawned an investigation by Delta, Cross pointed out a reality I live every day: “I’m sure many of my fellow young, corporate America working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected.”

That day, I wasn’t in the mood to deal with racist nonsense while trying to take care of my patient. I wasn’t in the mood to smile or be congenial when this man not only disrespected me, but disrupted my work.

I stopped my exam and stood up straight. “I don’t know,” I said, waiting for the man to realize who this person was, standing before him with a stethoscope around her neck and reflex hammer in her hand.

“Fish or chicken?” he asked.

I could have told him that I was a doctor, but why? Why do I need to keep explaining who I am in a space I have earned, and where I know I belong? That day I had no interest in shouldering the double burden of oppression.

All this time I spend explaining who I am is time I’m not spending being who I am.

As writer Audre Lorde says, “black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. … There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

All this time I spend explaining who I am is time I’m not spending being who I am.

“Don’t you know what she likes?” the man asked, growing more annoyed.

“No, I don’t.” I took a deep breath and blinked at him a few times, slow and hard, trying to maintain my composure. “I just met her five minutes ago,” I said, holding up the hospital ID that says “doctor.” “I’m trying to examine her.”

“Oh, sorry,” he said, “I thought you were her family. I’ll come back.”

My patient was black, so maybe a fleeting glimpse might have led him to the conclusion we were family. Yet, despite watching what I was doing and seeing what I was wearing, this man couldn’t see that being a doctor was a logical explanation for who I was. Just like when my mother, also a doctor, tried to park her car in a physicians-only parking lot and security refused to let her in.

Just like when Cross tried to live up to her oath as a doctor and was shot down because she didn’t look doctorly enough.

I threw my frustration out to Twitter, much as Cross threw hers into Facebook.

In the days since Cross’s posting, #whatadoctorlookslike has started trending. Black female health professionals have told their stories, shared their pictures in scrubs and white coats, and tried to break the stereotype of what a doctor looks like.

It’s inspirational that there are so many of us, doing so many wonderful things. But it’s also sad, because here we are, once again, forced into explaining why we belong in the space we’ve earned.

We are here. And we are what a doctor looks like.

  • First off, thank you for doing what you do. Getting through med school and doing such an important & stressful job takes hard work and a lot of guts, no matter who you are.

    For your own sanity and happiness, I hope you can realize and accept that if something doesn’t fit the model we are used to seeing, then it can be difficult for people to accept at first glance. (Or apparently, second or third glance by that flight attendant).

    Red Sox star Dustin Pedroia was once denied entry to a pro ball park players-entrance because he’s only about 5’8″, small framed and looks young. The security guard was used to seeing strapping 6′ tall guys as players.

    I understand why you’d be frustrated, but the more often we all see young black doctors, the less of this silliness you (and your successors) will have to deal with.

    Good article. Thanks again for caring for your fellow women & men.

  • These comments are ridiculous. Thanks for writing this article, Dr. Okwerekwu. I’m a (white, female) med student and I see this all the time. Ppl of color, women, especially women of color, and especially ESPECIALLY black women. It’s unfair, it highlights how much systemic and unconscious bias still exists, and I’m sorry that you and so many other ppl have to deal with it.

  • I still think that this is because we are at a crossroads where only very recently is it becoming more commonplace that people of color are routinely entering the most difficult professions such as medicine. But, again, this phenomenon is still new and if you give it more time this kind of mistake (many would call it thoughtlessness – I would call it assumptions based on the history of “who” is a doctor) will happen less and less. The demographics are rapidly changing. Yes, of course, people need to be made far more aware of what they are assuming about who is a doctor! I sympathize with your anger and frustration, but I think that the stereotyping is going to fade once this change has really taken place everywhere. (I feel so bad for the young black woman resident who was brushed aside by the stewardess. How hurtful and insulting! Not to mention alarming because she couldn’t do what she was trained to do!)

    • She did say I’m a doctor read her post. The stewardess didn’t accept it and asked for her credentials. But when the white doctor came up she said nevermind we have a “qualified” doctor here without asking for his credentials. Try being a black attorney and walk into the court on your day off to file papers without wearing a suit. You just might get it.

  • When I was a young aattending surgeon, I would speak with patients about their upcoming operation and at the conclusion they would ask me who would be doing it, as if I looked too young to be a competent and seasoned surgeon. I didn’t take offense. I just smiled. I understood where they were coming for from. I imagine if a Doogie Howser looking young person approached them on the plane as you had that they may have received the same response you did. As a physician, you need to be able to be empathetic and understand where people are coming from. Although you may sense some bias, you need to not inject your own bias. Try a little understanding.

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