On my first day of medical school at the University of Toronto, I arrived with the same anticipation all students do. But there was one more thing ― an extra layer of hope ― that I would be leaving behind my experience as an undergraduate.
After years of being the only black student in my cohort, I was looking forward to belonging to a more diverse student body where I would be able to find individuals with whom I could have a shared culture and identity.
A week before medical school orientation, I attended a dinner for incoming black medical students, held by the Black Medical Students’ Association at the U of T, and I quickly realized I was the only one there from my class. At the time, I thought ‘Ok, the others just might not be present’.
Shortly after, I attended my stethoscope ceremony and I remember looking around realizing that no one else was black. Once again, I would be the only black person in my cohort. My heart sank.
On the first day of orientation, someone asked me: "Did they make it easier for you to get into medical school ― did they somehow lower the criteria or give you some kind of special accommodation?"
I was completely taken aback; I had received no special treatment, but that query planted the seed in my head that I didn't belong in this space. If one person was thinking this and was brazen enough to ask me, I wondered what everyone else was thinking ― and I really struggled with that in my first year.
In certain ways, I felt like I had to hide my blackness to survive in medicine. People would reinforce this by telling me to change the way I looked, the way I talked or by sending the message “You can't be ‘too black.’”
I also felt, in other ways, like I had to represent my race in that space. It drove my perfectionistic tendencies and left no room for error.
I couldn’t imagine another four years of not having someone to turn to for support, someone who would understand what it’s like to be in my position. I wanted to share my experiences, but I was afraid of drawing attention to my feeling of “otherness” would make everything worse.
It took me a long time to get to a point where I no longer felt uncomfortable being a black woman in medicine. Here’s how I empowered myself:
I got professional support
Feeling alienated took a toll on my mental health. I felt hopeless, struggling with low moods, anxiety and the inability to eat or sleep.
Otherness is a common feeling when you’re a minority. Although I don’t think there was a conscious effort to try and make me feel different, as I tried to break into this cultural group, I experienced microaggressions and racist comments many of my peers hadn’t faced. It was isolating.
I sought out mental health support, through both a physician and a therapist, to unpack what I had experienced.
I found mentors with shared experience
I owe a large part of my strength to my mentors. These black female physicians took me under their wing and have been a support system for me ever since. They encouraged me to keep going in the face of adversity, and they always made sure I could reach out and talk to them.
When I would tell them about an experience I had with another student or a patient, they would often have had a similar experience. Sometimes it would have been 10 or, 15 years ago. Sometimes it was last week.
Having someone to talk to who knew how I felt, that sense of solidarity, made a big difference.
I became an advocate and mentor for others
My strong relationship with my own mentors encouraged me to do the same for others. In addition to mentoring people formally, I also took this on this role informally ― through advocacy, public speaking and writing. I also do a lot of media work in print, television and radio.
Most of my public speaking is about sharing my story in the hopes of inspiring and empowering others. And, in turn, it’s made me stronger.
Looking ahead to my upcoming residency, I feel much more empowered than I did when I started medical school. Today I'm proud of my identity ― and proud to be a black woman in medicine.
My fears continue to persist, only they’re quieter. Diversity in medicine remains controversial among some people in the profession, so I had to accept early on that putting myself and my views in the public eye has inherent risks. While many people see what I’m doing as positive, there’s also been a backlash.
But I don’t let that stop me. My advocacy work and sharing my story have connected me to black medical students across the country with similar experiences. And, it's given me a sense of purpose I don't think I could have found elsewhere.
Adapted from an interview with the author.
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