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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  • Dear Doc, I too applaud your recommendation for encouraging more black men AND women enter the field of medicine. (Should I conclude you are sexist or misogynistic since you did not? I did not, I assumed it was because you spoke from your own perspective, like perhaps the woman was). I would hope your recommendation to promote more blacks in medicine is achieved.

    WRT the comments. Perhaps she was rude, racist or simply trying to be helpful. I’ll go with your call, since you were there. But I can say with certainty that I would coach my own son or daughter similarly, that how you dress can impact the perceptions of others in both a positive and negative manner, regardless of race. Zuckerberg doesn’t have white priv, he has rich priv. Moreover, were a random kid in a hoodie to try and perform surgery on me, or you, you’d think, “cool, let’s go” ? Doubt it. Any more than you’d be psyched if a monster truck driving, confederate flag waving, Lynerd Skynerd T-shirt wearing cracker put down his smokes to work on you.

    I believe, rightly or wrongly, it’s socio-economic factors that drive perceptions rather than race. How do I conclude that. I travel on business in many parts of subSaharan Africa where I am a substantial minority, far more than you are in the US. Like 200:1. I am never concerned about my well being in clubs and places with well dressed folks. I’m worried around ATMs by poor people without food for their families. Try it some time. Trust me, you won’t feel white or black, you’ll feel wealthy and dare I say privileged. (As an aside, business owners there say their most racist clients are African AMERICANS that treat their staff like dogs. Go figure)

    Anyway, this wasn’t solely about race, and yes, getting people comfortable around others is a noble undertaking. Not only to elevate blacks amongst whites. But blacks amongst their own community.

  • No telling what was in that woman’s mind or heart BUT she had courage. I have said the same to my children and there friends black and white when they speak poorly or dress inappropriately. Has never had anything to do with race.

    MAYBE just on old grouchy granmom giving advice to a young man. Or maybe she was racist. I would like to think the former!

    Anyway, I am sorry it offended you! But if it motivated you as you seem to be implying, that’s good I think. Not enough adults giving advise, well intended or otherwise, anymore to our youth. good luck and thanks for your thoughts

  • While it is true most black males are not criminals, black males DO commit a hugely disproportionate amount of violent crime. That’s why Jesse Jackson said, ‘When I hear footsteps behind me and turn to see it as a white person, I am relieved’. It’s also why Black Lives Matter is a hustle. Black people are actually shot at a lower rate than their rate of violent criminality. Black people commit over half of all homicides yet are only 25% of those killed by police. Black people also commit a disproportionate amount of hate crimes. Moreover, hate crimes are only a tiny fraction of all crimes. And black people commit 85% of all interracial crime. The fact that most of you don’t know these things is proof of the media’s relentless bias.

    • The number of overwhelmingly tone deaf Euro-centric comments are really what I would expect from my colleagues who are overwhelmingly European decent and privileged in the good ol’ U.S. of A. It is quite sad that this what I expect now, especially from the people of my generation who are now in their 50’s, product of the decadent and selfish Reagan era. Having lived and learned long enough, I have accepted that most of you have not a strand of empathy within you and you will never acquire any. For the rest of us, I can only hope that perhaps some of your offspring may have some empathy and kindness so that they can be better for their society.

    • The fact that the statistics you cite are still accurate in 2019 is evidence enough that we as physicians need all the more to encourage qualified, intelligent, ethical, and driven young African-Americans and other underrepresented minority groups to consider the field of medicine as a career. I agree with the author that these underrepresented groups often unfortunately do not have positive Physician role models of the same race. However, as he pointed out, a caring physician of ANY race can be a powerful role model to a child. Although I am of European descent, a product of the 1980s, and privileged by my LORD to be a fourth generation doctor, I share Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dream that we will “one day live in a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I agree that no one should allow other people, be they one’s friends or relatives, the media, or our elected officials, to be successful in their attempts to divide us based upon our differences. We are ALL made in the image of our Creator, and I eagerly anticipate the day when I “behold a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” working as physicians just as ALL people groups will one day be represented in glory “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (ref. Revelation 7:9).
      God bless!

  • I would just like to point out that the only way you could agree with this article is if you are deeply racist, to begin with. Not just a little racist. Never in a million years have I even come close to thinking Blacks were any less than the rest of us. Only people like this author are the ones who bring racism to the forefront every day making things worse for everyone.

    • In what way is the author being racist? By pointing out the fact that black men are vastly underrepresented in the medical field? By expressing the hope that more children will have the opportunity to be cared for by a black doctor? I’m struggling to see how this is racist in any way. In fact, it seems as though the author is trying to combat racism by presenting a positive view of black men that is not seen enough, and encouraging other children of color to follow in his footsteps.

  • After reading some other comments I just want to add that I am white but come from 2 generations of biracial marriages and adoptions from the 1960’s .. I was oblivious to race until I moved to the city and black folks thought I was unusual and I truly had no idea how racial biases can hinder so much good in this world … I love melting pots and I think diversity is just the way God made the world … full of color ..

  • I think this is a great idea and I believe it would have a positive impact on racial biases.. I met a doctor of color before and he was very kind and compassionate and it was a memorable positive experience…

  • Well there are plenty of Indian and Asian doctors. Are they not racial enough?
    I think you argument has more to do with social status rather than anything else. And indeed, it is a more powerful discriminator than race

  • Why a male doctor? Black females get both anti-black and anti-female bias and have an equally hard or harder time getting respect (in general) than black males. I certainly get the point that early exposure to people of color in positions of responsibility, etc. will get the idea across to kids that race is not a barrier to that profession and that everyone deserves respect regardless of skin color. But limiting this to males is really offensive. This comment is coming from a male, white physician.

  • It’s important that we take the author’s word for it that race played a role in this encounter. Even if the woman on the plane was thinking of his clothes and not his race, it’s likely that the author has to deal with situations like this often. It is precisely because of white privilege that Mark Zuckerberg can wear a hoodie most of the time and still be viewed as a tech genius, that he only has to dress up when the president tells him to.

    • Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie has nothing to do with white privilege. There is a notion of competency-deviancy. When you are a successful CEO you can wear whatever you want. However, when you are applying for an entry level position, you’d better “look the part” of a successful employee. This article starts with a presumption of racism when there is no evidence that this was the motive. Every young person (irrespective of race) should be taught to dress for success. Once you achieve “success privilege “ then you can wear the hoodie to round on your patients.

  • Dr. Okorodudu:
    First, kudos to you for working to inspire others to follow in your footsteps. Far too many black youth look towards celebrities and sports stars for inspiration. Besides many being poor role models, these celebrities and sports stars also represent a very small and unrealistic pathway to success, for the vast majority of young people (of any race).
    However, your story about the woman on the plane is problematic. Maybe she was racist but more likely she was probably just rude. Whether we like it or not, appearance matters and it’s a variable all of us can (mostly) control. Fact: Mark Zukerberg likes to wear hoodies too and he looks like #@it when he does. Our first black president joked that he was the guy who “finally got Mark to wear a tie.” Even billionaire white guys have to comply with professional and societal norms. This is an easy experiment any of us can try on our next flight. No matter your gender, race or ethnicity try wearing your gym clothes on the outbound flight. Next step it up with a business professional attire on the return leg. See for yourself if you notice a difference in how you are treated by the TSA, ticket counter staff and flight crew. You will notice a difference and race has nothing to do with it.
    Anyway, keep up the great work!

    • It’s important that we take the author’s word for it that race played a role in this encounter. Even if the woman on the plane was thinking of his clothes and not his race, it’s likely that the author has to deal with situations like this often. It is precisely because of white privilege that Mark Zuckerberg can wear a hoodie most of the time and still be viewed as a tech genius, that he only has to dress up when the president tells him to.

    • “No matter your gender, race or ethnicity try wearing your gym clothes on the outbound flight.”

      I’ve worn gym clothes on every single flight I’ve ever been on. Unless you’re headed straight to or from a business meeting, why on earth would someone dress in business clothes to sit in a cramped plane cabin for hours? I don’t put on a suit for road trips either, for the record.

    • Also, note that no one has ever criticized my clothes or told me I wasn’t going to be successful because I was wearing a hoodie on a plane. If they had, I would’ve told them exactly what their opinion was worth.

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