An unpleasant experience I had many years ago on an airplane initially left me angry. But it has since come to shape my thoughts on race and how increased diversity in the medical profession could influence the way white Americans view black men like me.

When I was 20, I boarded a flight from St. Louis to Houston for a trip home from college. The temperature was cool, so like a typical student I was wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. Shortly after finding my seat, a middle-aged white woman sat next to me.

We exchanged pleasantries, as strangers on a plane often do. But then, over the course of the two-hour flight, this woman began to belittle me. She criticized the way I was dressed and told me that I didn’t speak well. What stuck with me the most was when she said, “Nobody will ever take you seriously. You’ll never be successful.”

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I remember asking myself: Is this what people think when they see someone who looks like me?

I’ve often reflected on that unusual encounter, wondering what would prompt someone to act that way. Clearly my seatmate saw a young black man in a hoodie as a hopeless failure, not as a person who would become a doctor in a few years.

I suspect that she had had limited interactions with black men over the course of her life. Since then, I have come to believe that if more people got to know successful black professionals, outlooks would change.

Bias and racism begin to develop in children as early as age 5. As they become aware of race, they make associations based on how people look. Negative parental attitudes can make children wary and judgmental of people who look different from them; the lack of positive minority imagery in the media only adds to the problem.

Misperceptions of black men persist among individuals who have little real-world contact with them. I’m willing to bet that when many Americans close their eyes and imagine a black man, what comes to mind may not be the most positive picture. But it should be. The truth of the matter is that most black men are people with normal jobs and lives like everyone else. Yet that’s difficult for people to appreciate if they don’t see them regularly.

Being cared for by a black male doctor can help change this narrative. I see this almost every day at work. When children watch their mom or dad speak with me, they see that their parent respects me. The doctor-patient relationship also builds a special trust. I still vividly remember encounters with my own childhood physician, Dr. Nina Miller, a white woman I revere to this day.

Unfortunately, the chances of seeing a black male doctor in the U.S. are slim. Black men have historically been underrepresented in the medical profession, comprising only about 2 percent of U.S. physicians. And the number of black male applicants to medical school has not been growing. According to a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of black male applicants to medical schools was actually lower in 2014 than it was in 1978.

This discouraging trend may have consequences for the health of the black community. A study published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that black men, who have the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group, are more likely to follow preventive health recommendations when they are seen by black doctors.

To reverse the trend of declining black men in medicine, we need to convince more black boys to pursue careers in the field. Several years ago, I launched “Black Men in White Coats” to inspire more of these individuals to consider medicine as an occupation. It is a series of videos featuring black physicians from my medical school, UT Southwestern, and others who shared stories and perspectives on how race has influenced their careers. We hope these testimonials will show young people that with hard work and dedication they can overcome obstacles and become the positive role models our society needs.

I wish every child had the opportunity to be cared for by a black male doctor. They would come to trust and respect this person and, early in life, develop a personal and positive relationship with a black man. Maybe then more people would understand that individuals who look like me, no matter what they’re wearing, are likely to be sincere, intelligent, and loving.

Dale Okorodudu, M.D., is a pulmonary and critical care physician and an assistant professor of medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He is the founder of DiverseMedicine Inc. and the author of How to Raise a Doctor: Wisdom from Parents Who Did It” (Clovercroft Publishing, 2018).

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  • Dr. Dale, I totally appreciate your perspective. Our job, as physicians of the diaspora is to represent as competent, caring physicians. I have worked in urban, suburban and rural settings often as the only poc in medicine in the community. That was one of my most rewarding results, to bond with those different from myself, who realized that they were very much like me.

  • While it brings up very valid points, this article doesn’t leave room for black female doctors.

  • The society does not revolve around an individual or groups. Whats wrong in society is considered wrong. We learn that we have to present ourselves in an acceptable manner and reflect are values in this society.

  • Just two thoughts. Did you ever think that the woman on the plane was responding more to your sweatpants and hoodie than your skin color? Many “older” folks that may still dress up to fly may look a bit askance at young teens or millenials dressed in sweats or pajama bottoms or a hoodie when traveling, possibly thinking to themselves that that individual might never amount to much dressed like that. Not saying it’s right, just saying how that casual dress may be perceived. Second, your idea that all children should have a black pediatrician, while perhaps providing them with a good model, would also, if carried to its full conclusion, rule out having any pediatricians of other races. That would almost be an extreme example of reverse affirmative action. Personally, I would prefer my children and family to have the most competent physician available, regardless of ethnicity.

    • I am an older woman, 62, and I often wear very comfortable clothes when I fly including sweat pants and a hoodie! I am a long time NP. I agree with the author. Experiences with other cultures at a young age are vital to our mind set as we mature in how we see the world.

  • I am surprised to learn that there is such a small percentage of black men who are doctors. Hopefully it may encourage you to know that I immediately flashed on three different black male doctors who had wonderful, positive effects on my life. The first was my first preceptor in PA school who was a patient, wonderful, teacher. The second was a my favorite obstetrician in a group who delivered both of my babies. And the third an excellent, smart psychiatrist who treated me as a colleague and recognized how much I knew. And possibly the best part is I normally just have fond memories of them as just great doctors.

  • Really good read and a very positive attitude. You’re right. The world needs more men just like you.
    Most of the comments are harsh and miss the point of the article. The author is not advocating incompetence, just reporting on real life experience.

  • I do wonder the intentions of the people who have criticism of this article. They do not respect a black man and almost claim to see no color. They down-play the facets of being a black person with being a male or a female. A little insulting. They did not comment on the substance of it, but just with plain non-supported assumptions and statements.

  • Thank you for your insights. I would suggest that children’s exposure to all races and all professions and their various combinations will lead to a reduction in stereotyping in general.

  • I agree but there are very few black MDs. I did meet a black female Psychiatrist. I would think also any minority MD would help children. Oh, I went to a class reunion once, had the year book when to a group of white girls and they ask to see the year book. They pointed out one of the top girls in the book was an MD, I pointed out a Chinese guy wearing black leather being an MD, they said wow then I said so am I, before I finish, one girl yelled out BS! I laugh and wake away.

  • I can only imagine the headlines if this article said white male instead of black. I applaude anyone of any race or gender for accomplishing the goal of becoming a physician or succes in any other field for that matter. Race will remain a thought in people’s minds and in our society forever until we stop categorizing people as the “black male” or “white male” or whatever else. Why can’t we just be the male or female professional? Everyone has a story and obsticle they over came to some degree in order to become successful— your race has nothing to do with it. It has to do with your work ethic and determination. Not your black work ethic or blue work ethic or pink work ethic. We’re one family with commonalities that outweigh the differences a million to one.

    • I agree that most of us have obstacles that we must overcome to be successful but not all obstacles are equally daunting.

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