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 (FB): “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.

“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.

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  • Its ironical that a website called STAT doesnt appear to know what statistics is. While i dont have the figures, I would be surprised if statistically a black woman wasnt among the least likely to be a medical doctor.

  • Why is there often an assumption that people misunderstand when they are being discriminated against by others who weren’t there? I agree that age and gender must often play a role in what people expect to see in a doctor. But I can only imagine what race plays. I hope by the time my daughters are in the work force there will be many changes.

  • Just to play Devil’s Advocate…this could be about age, or gender, and not necessarily about race, depending on the patient’s own age and gender. I’m 48 and might assume that a young female doctor is a resident or intern, depending on how young she looks. I would never assume that a black person can’t be a doctor – that’s just ridiculous. I’m not saying that aren’t people out there who feel that way, but it may not be as prevalent as you think.

  • WHY is everything a Race Issue these days? Ever thing its just the normal practice of medicine and normal Quality Control issues?
    Pt asks for antidepressants and testosterone; doctor provides neither but does seek a financial contribution to his practice.
    Doctor receives email from Pt saying he thinks he is having a diabetic crisis due to massive thirst and ingestion of products he would never normally consume. Doctor knows Pt is a pauper with difficult transportation issues, but makes absolutely no response, electronic or telephonic.

    Three days later, Pt. appears in office swilling water, nurse gives Dx of ‘oral thrush’ and Rx of Cortisol.
    That evening, Doctor responds for first time saying lab tests indicate you are not going to live thru the night self-managing your diabetic crisis, please drive 37 miles to ER at night while lapsing in and out of consciousness. Pt. opts to stay home, take pretzels and water and Rx’d cortisol. Pt. writes an increasingly rambling note addressed to “the young couple I chose not to kill by driving to the ER”.

    Dean of Medical School and Board Certified Pathologist suggest Pheochromocytoma to Pt. Pt. relays information to clinic to supplement his previous complaint of Crainiopharangioma. Clinic persistently refuses to order ANY diagnostic testing and flatly dismisses Pheochromocytoma as so rare its a non-existent disease and refuses to discuss any condition other than hypertension.

    Anyone able to discern the race issues here? What if I provide some additional information: Doctor has large sign “Firearms Welcome”.

  • I feel your frustrations and anger. I am a CPA but I had to also earn TEN other designations after my name to have the same respect. I don’t call that a fair trade.

  • If you pay attention to the stories told in the article you can see disrespect.
    We are not in the person shoes so we cannot clearly see anything other then that.
    The people that did not recognized the physicians assumed they were something else, even with lots of evidence pointing to that. They disregard their assistance in one instance and interrupt their work in another instance.
    Both people should have been educated on the “disrecpect” term by both physicians.
    I can understand frustration, if you go through the “educating” thing too much too often then you have a bigger problem that you alone cannot solve.
    Here is where society comes in. We should all be “educated” and “educating” people to respect above all else.
    With respect the things above would not have happened.
    I do think situations like that should be brought to the “bosses” in both cases, if this is a repeating pattern so the whole institution can “educate” their members and stop this kind of disrespect.
    Please, if you decide to offend someone because you disagree with this comment you will most likely perpetuate disrespect and eventually it will get to you again. Consider transit, you go out driving and cause lots of trouble in traffic upsetting other drivers. They will do the same to other drivers to vent their frustration. Guess what, when you leave work to go back home, there is a high chance the frustration you caused in the morning will be there to welcome you back. 🙂

  • I agree with Tamika sister’s comment. All hospital employees have very little time to do their jobs and there is no time built in to wait around for others. Frustrating yes, as a nurse I had to allow every department and physicians constantly interrupt what I was doing and still function. In many years, I never saw a patient think a doctor wasn’t a doctor because of their race. Usually it was their age, especially if a young resident had a baby face, or their gender, how they were dressed, or if they actually seemed like a regular person. If the biggest complaints about your job is being mistaken for a family member of a patient, or a nurse, or housekeeping then you might want to consider your need for superiority.

  • Thank you for this very interesting piece. I think that the #1 factor here is age. They say that at the beginning of your life, your doctors are older than you, then they are the same age as you, and finally they are younger. I’ve reached the point that they are starting to be younger, and sometimes it’s hard to believe they are fully trained. But then they help me, and I appreciate their energy, their up-to-date knowledge, and their commitment. Hang in there, young doctors.

  • It sounds like she is the one who didn’t respect the man asking the question and demanding some sort of special privilege because she is a “doctor. That combined with the very small representation in the professor by women of color (2%) so it was a pretty natural conclusion. It was just math not racism and her response was one of elitism.

    Why was her job any more important than his? Her response also reflects an outdated view of the importance of the social determinates of health. She could have just asked the patient who they are both there to serve. She is the one who sounds like she needs some sensitivity training.

    • I think the issue was he interrupted after all she was in there doing her job first. It’s pretty weird for someone to just come in and interrupt a neuro exam when you try admitting someone. Plus he assumed she was the patients family while dressed as an employee. I was a female resident a few years ago and non matter how many times I said doctor i was often called nurse. Patients with all female physicians often stated they saw no doctors all day. The black residents though were always assumed to be housekeeping which never happened to us. I’m sure this isn’t the only time this happened to this young doc.

  • Id like to reach out and say that this ia not only true of african americans. I think the very important point this article brings up is that even in this day and age sexual discrimination is very much alive especially in medicine. I am a young female and i am also a doctor. I repeatedly get referred to as a nurse and people do a double take when they find out im a physician. I have discussed this with many of my female colleagues and they all face the same problem and most of them are not african american. Its so unfortunate that this type of discrimination is still so strong and pervasive in today’s culture. And the offenders are not just men. Women make the same unfortunate assumptions.

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