Dr. Tamika Cross, who is an OBGYN in Houston, posted on Facebook last weekend that a Delta flight attendant rejected her offer to help a sick patient and questioned whether she was really a doctor. Dr. Cross is young and black. Another doctor on board was allowed to help. He was older and white.
Her story is all too familiar to me. Over the last few years, I have interviewed dozens of black women doctors for my documentary film, Black Women in Medicine. Time and time again they would share with me stories about how they were mistaken for home health aides or dieticians. People refused to believe a black woman could be a physician, much less a surgeon. Dr. Jennifer Ellis, who is one of only six black female cardiothoracic surgeons in America, said that the further away your appearance is from TV’s Marcus Welby, the harder it is for people to believe you’re a doctor.
Dr. Cross’ experience highlights a major problem in our society. Currently, only 2% of all physicians are black women. This sobering statistic has real-life implications for the health of our country. Women like Dr. Cross have persevered in medical fields in part by overcoming barriers linked to race and gender. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the first African-American Surgeon General, told me, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
What we have learned is that minority doctors are more likely to provide care to minority, underserved, and disadvantaged communities, meaning their under-representation is of utmost concern. We all must challenge the status quo by replacing the false and debasing historical narrative regarding race, ethnicity and gender with positive, empowering images. We must bring together doctors and students of all ages and build powerful relationships to inspire new generations of medical professionals.
We tell our black children they can be anything they want to be—an engineer, a scientist, a surgeon. We tell mainstream America that everyone has equal opportunity and that, post-Obama, racism does not exist. Then we read about what happened to Dr. Cross and it makes you question what it’s all about.