A Black Man ALMOST in a White Coat

I was the only black male in a class of 200 medical students. Although this was not a daily thought in my head, I was reminded of it quite often. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), 604 out of the 21,614 students who matriculated to medical school were black males. That is a whopping 3%. By now, many have also heard the alarming statistics that there were fewer black males in medical school in 2014 than in 1978. With the low numbers of black males in medical school, I know my experiences are echoed around the country by other black male medical students. I thought I’d share with you a few experiences and lessons learned during my medical school journey as a black man almost in a white.

1. The pressure is real

Med school is tough on its own but at times it can feel like the weight of a whole community is on your back. It is as though you are the delegate who will speak on behalf of “the brothers”, show everyone the latest dance moves, and be center stage for the promo photo shoots. You really shouldn’t have to feel this way but in certain situations it is tough not to and it may be necessary to do so at times. There are topics in a lecture for instance that only you can truly identify with or maybe you completely disagree with. Sometimes distasteful remarks are made daring you to speak up. Who else will do it? The pressure to excel can be intensified by black patients and hospital employees who are rooting for you. You feel you can’t let them down. You can’t let your friends, your community, and your family down. I highly recommend finding a mentor that can identify with you. This will help tremendously in dealing with this pressure.  

2. You can’t escape racism

I’ve come to realize that a number of other black male doctors use the same tactics I do while driving. I’m an extremely safe driver but a couple of bad run-ins with the police (see here) have taught me valuable lessons. After being laughed at on three separate occasions by police officers when asked what I do for a living, I now drive either with a white coat hanging on my passenger seat or my hospital ID badge clipped on my shirt. We all judge and have our own biases but society has a way of compartmentalizing us into groups and I would argue that the quickest tool we use to do this is race. I still recall a med school friend asking me if I was scared walking home after midnight by myself after a long day of studying at the library. I told her yes, but not out of fear of being attacked but fear that I could be accused of something I didn’t do. She found this very strange and it really opened my eyes at the different worlds we must live in. The short white coat you wear as a med student is a powerful tool that brings a sense of respect and credibility but as soon as it comes off, it’s back to reality. At times, the white coat failed to protect me like the day I went to a nursing home and was called the N word over and over by a patient stating he doesn’t talk to n—-s. It was just one of those cases you dust off, pray for the guy and keep being the best provider you can be.

I learned quickly after an incident that this coat can serve multiple roles.

3. You must overcome imposter syndrome

I believe most medical students face the imposter syndrome but I suspect it is more prevalent in those who stick out of the crowd the most. This may be because you have a disability, come from a small school, have an accent, or look different from others. It is hard not to doubt your abilities and question the reason why you were accepted or received a reward. Sometimes, others around you make comments making matters worse. Society has a way of tapping you on the shoulders and telling you you do not fit in here. Check out my previous blog on imposter syndrome and how to defeat it.

4. Be a unique advocate

As a medical student, your clinical years will bring up a lot of ethical dilemmas. There may be situations where you notice a patient being mistreated or neglected due to his or her race, ethnicity, or gender. There also may be times were there is a cultural barrier you might be able to step in and educate the medical team on. I recall during my rotations as a third year student when I basically had to interpret for a patient. Mind you, I am monolingual. I somehow found myself interpreting for a black gentleman who spoke Ebonics and our resident who was an Indian woman with a thick accent. It irked me watching their first encounter and listening to the resident present his story inaccurately so the next day I stepped in. This in itself exemplifies the beauty of diversity in the healthcare field. We can all advocate for those who we relate with.

5. Learn, learn, learn

There is so much knowledge to soak in as a medical student. You are there to learn about the art of healing but at the same time so many life lessons are gathered on the journey. You will learn how to operate in an environment that you are not accustomed to. As a minority student working hard to impress the attending physician you often learn to code switch. There are general conversations your peers have that you may not be accustomed to having but in order to assimilate and not look disinterested, you join in. Your choices will be to either isolate yourself or learn to appreciate the different perspectives and embrace them wholeheartedly. I believe the learning any minority experiences will be unique from the majority population and it is important that we hear all voices in order to optimize the medical training experience and healthcare as a whole.

Medical school was challenging, yet it was an amazing and rewarding experience. My training has allowed me to become an excellent physician while my experience as the only black male in a class of 200 taught me resilience, confidence, cultural competence, advocacy, and purpose. I can easily say that I am a better physician through this experience and I hope it shows in the care I provide for my patients.