What it’s like to be Black and a doctor in white America

female black doctor with mask and two other white doctors, what it’s like to be black and a doctor in white america, overt racism, diversity in medicine, overcome biases, racial justice work, dr iesha galloway-gilliam

Dr. Iesha Galloway-Gilliam, an Internal Medicine provider at Hennepin Healthcare shares her experience and challenges being Black and a doctor in this interview:

What kinds of challenges did you experience while pursuing your career in medicine and how did you overcome them?

​Unfortunately, racial bias was ubiquitous throughout medical education, whether overt or in the form of microaggressions. Also, unfortunately, these types of experiences are not new for most Black Americans. So by the time you reach a point in your life when you are pursuing higher education, you’ve had some practice dealing with racism in its many forms; life has been your teacher. You overcome by relying on the coping mechanisms you learned along the way and by leaning on the wisdom, prayer, and support of your community.

What is it like to be Black and a doctor in our country?

In some ways, similar to what it is like to be a Black person in America. There are a multitude of challenging experiences, extending from overt racism to more subtle, but equally harmful forms. At the same time, it is a privilege and an honor to be able to represent and care for my community and to stand on the shoulders of so many ancestors who paved the way for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a patient tell me they’ve never had a Black doctor while looking at me and beaming with pride. It is truly a priceless experience.

What would make your experience better?

​Increased representation by increasing the number of Black physicians.

How have things changed or improved for Black physicians in medicine during your career?

I am just outside of the early career physician phase. I can’t say that I’ve observed a significant change within this relatively short time frame, but I am encouraged by the fact that a more direct spotlight is being shone on racism and inequity in medicine. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

Why is diversity in medicine important?

The answer to this question is in line with the foundational truth that “representation matters.” Medicine is no exception. The data, if one needs data to validate centuries worth of lived experiences, shows this very clearly. Certain outcomes for Black patients improve when they have Black physicians.

How do you help your colleagues overcome biases in caring for patients who do not look like them?

Thankfully, I can’t say I’ve been in a situation recently where I’ve had to do this, but I will point out that the onus for overcoming racial biases is had by the person who holds them. An undue burden is often placed on Black people to help others overcome and manage their racist views. This expectation contributes to racialized trauma and weathering.

How do you advocate for patients of color when you see visible signs of bias based on race or culture?

I haven’t been in a situation where I’ve witnessed overt racism directed toward a patient within my direct line of sight, likely for obvious reasons. But if it were to occur, my response would depend upon the situation and the parties involved, ranging from involving the relevant managerial structure to having a more direct conversation with the offending party, when and where appropriate.

What, in your opinion, can be done to diminish inequity in healthcare?

Increased representation through the access of Black youth to careers in medicine and active recruitment of Black physicians. Of course, racism in medicine reflects the larger system of institutional and entrenched racism within our country. So, ultimately, ongoing racial justice work on a national level is germane to addressing racial inequity in healthcare.

Do you have to justify and explain your rationale in your approach to care and if so, how does that make you feel? What do you feel can be done to garner an equal level of professional respect as a Black doctor?

Thankfully, this form of hostility is not been a common experience for me. However, I have colleagues around the country who experience this insulting behavior regularly. It needs to be called out and addressed directly. The difficulty is that its motivations can also be difficult to prove. This is part of the mental warfare of racism.

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