“You could help us with our diversity efforts. If you came here, you could be a part of building up our diversity program.”
Who said I wanted to help with your diversity efforts? Why hasn’t it been built up already?
“We value diversity here. You will be supported for who you are.”
All I hope is for that to be true.
“So, I see that you’re interested in diversity stuff.”1
That’s what you took away from the C.V. I prepared for you?
Not that I went to The Massachusetts Institute of Technology twice? Not that I used to write fantasy novels? What about my melanoma research? Or the fact that I was elected president of my medical school class?
Does any of that matter?
No. Apparently, my calling card is “being interested in diversity stuff.”
It’s the fall of 2019. I’m interviewing for a position as a child psychiatry fellow. I am an African-American, gay psychiatry resident who was once much more than those descriptors. Yet, here I am. Interviewing at various places in the country with the constant fear that I will be reduced to my skin color and my sexual orientation.
This concern is constant now because it’s happened before, in medical school and then again in residency. And now I’m interviewing again, eager to avoid the trap I’ve fallen into too many times.
I entered medical school believing that everyone there would be treated equally, because that had been my overall experience as an undergraduate and then graduate student at MIT. However, my time in medical school was radically different. It was a near-constant nightmare consisting of bullying and gaslighting around my race and sexual orientation. I encountered what many African-Americans and others who are minoritized in medicine experience in their training.
There was the classmate who asked whether I had gotten into medical school because they had a certain number of spots for gay people. There were deans who dismissed me when I spoke about the racism, homophobia and bigotry occurring in our class while I was class president. A colleague said I spoke about diversity “too much,” as I got shut out by classmates who I continued to advocate for and to love.
And, as I was silenced by others, I began silencing myself. Every day, my mind and heart shattered just a bit more.
And most of all? I wish I could forget the heartbreak as classmates who said they “supported diversity” — classmates who would later talk about how much Black lives mattered — stood by and said nothing during those medical school years. Those years proved how racism and homophobia could still break me, and even though I put myself back together near the end of medical school, the scars run deep.
When I interviewed for residency — as I ran from my medical school — I thought I knew enough to choose a place where I would be safe. During this interview cycle, I asked every institution if any issues had come up with regards to race and diversity. I thought that such a question would be enough to elicit any evidence of discrimination. At the residency program I chose, I was told by someone in a leadership position that if any issues surrounding diversity came up, I would be protected. Sure that I was finally going to be safe again, I ranked that school first, trusting their response to my question.
The reverse would turn out to be true.
Three years later, this person admitted they “copped-out” of telling me the full story of how bad things were at the institution. The reason? Because they didn’t know how to.
It is an apology that I understood. It can be daunting to tell someone, “You will not be safe here and this is why.” However, it does not wipe away three years of daily instances of bigotry. It in no way encompasses the sense of institutional betrayal I carry with me. The scars of three years of pain, racism, homophobia, and discrimination manifested in me as near daily panic attacks during which I couldn’t catch my breath and my extremities seized up, as if encased in ice.
What are the memories I won’t ever be able to forget from my time in residency?
An attending saying that I could simply step onto their team for the day to help with an African-American, gay patient because their team didn’t know how to speak with said patient. This was without asking for my consent. This made me that Black, gay resident once again. The same attending had called me by the wrong name a year earlier, confusing me for the only other Black resident in our program, while knowing the names of every white resident. When I approached him about it privately, he “didn’t want to speak about this.”
I will remember program leadership having “secret” discussions about my decision to not wear a tie and how my choice showed a lack of professionalism. A white colleague who was gay was never taken to task for not wearing one.
Another attending said I seemed “too quick” when I extolled my detailed plans for patients (all of whom improved) and he wasn’t “sure if he could trust my decision-making,” when nearly every other attending described my work as above their expectations. I would take an extra 30 minutes out of my day to walk him through each decision I’d made and why, even if that decision was as minor as an antipyretic. The same questioning of abilities never happened with any of my white colleagues.
All of those instances found me interviewing at different institutions for the next stage of my career, desperately hoping I would be safer this time around.
I didn’t want to choose the wrong place again. I couldn’t. I didn’t think my spirit and sense of self would make it through if I messed up again.
And so, because of the experiences from the past seven years, because of experiences that are common for far too many minorities, I entered the conversation during each interview wondering: Who do people see when they are interviewing me? How do I see myself now, after medical school and residency?
Am I simply another Black body to them?
Another Black body with a side of gayness to fill a quota?
Another Black mind that won’t be seen as anything more than being Black?
But I’d learned my lesson from the times before. I knew better this time.
I took the need for a possible “cop-out” out of the hands of my interviewers. I set the tone for the interviewers. I laid the baseline of understanding that racism and discrimination happen in America. I removed the need for my interviewers to acknowledge that it extends into medicine. Because these are facts.
With every place I interviewed, I made a conscious effort to use a specific phrase: “I know that we are interviewing after the 2016 election, and there has been an increase in discrimination against minorities. I also know these issues around discrimination happen in institutions as well. So, I was wondering, could we discuss specific instances of bigotry or discrimination that have occurred at your institution and how they were handled?”
The responses were telling. Some people let out slight sighs of relief that I addressed the issue before they had to. One person said they hadn’t heard of issues surrounding diversity in their program. That answer exactly mimicked one I had heard before in residency interviews — I ranked that place last.
One program director said how glad they were that I was asking that question. We were able to have a frank discussion. For the first time in a while, I was able to speak of how I would love to do research again, to write again. We spoke of how I would like to see who I could become when I wasn’t constantly bombarded with issues around race and sexuality every day. We discussed how to make such a future happen, and what specific work they were doing on diversity.
I ranked that institution first on my list. It is the institution I am at now.
I asked my question because I needed to hear the truth. Because I needed to find a place where I could maybe feel at home again like I did at MIT. I needed to find a place that supports who I am as a person while I continue to learn how to become the best psychiatrist caring for kids. I needed to find a university where I can be an African-American, gay psychiatrist who is also known for having a keen intellect and a kind heart, for being a writer, an advocate, and a person who dreams of a better world for everyone.
I deserve to be more than a diversity statistic. I deserve to be seen as more than a collectible token that could be cast aside or maligned if I ever drew attention to problems in my institution.
And though I wanted nothing more than to delve into my research and education, my first goal was to protect my mental safety as a minoritized individual.
And how did my choice of institution play out this time?
Well, I just started orientation, so it’s a little too early to tell, but we’ve already had nuanced discussions around race and diversity. So, I guess I would say I’m cautiously hopeful.2
1. This specific statement was made during one of my rotations in residency. All other questions in this introduction were asked during interviews.
2. This essay was written several months ago, right as I began fellowship. Since starting, I have felt at home and valued in a way I haven’t in the past seven years. My depression is in remission once more. I still stay in touch with my friends from Boston, and I’m fortunate enough to be writing these pieces to hopefully help the next generation. So, that choice has truly played out in a way that continually warms and is healing my heart.
Editor’s note: Articles on in-House are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of their educational institutions, in-House, the in-House editorial board, or Pager Publications, Inc., the supporting organization of in-House.