Black female doctors from across the country are showing solidarity with Dr. Tamika Cross, a Houston-based OB-GYN, who was on a Delta Air Lines flight when a fellow passenger fell ill.
A Delta flight attendant’s initial refusal to believe that Cross was actually a doctor has garnered thousands of comments on that doctor’s Facebook page, while others are talking privately or turning to social media to voice their frustrations.
The incident has even inspired the hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike campaign on Twitter.
Dr. Sherri Simpson Broadwater, a contract psychiatrist in East Point, knows all too well what Cross went through.
“Like many black women physicians, I have experienced an undercurrent of dismissiveness,” she said.
She’s walked in the office or hospital fully dressed in a physician’s white coat with her identification. Still, she’s been asked whether she was a nurse, a social worker or told that she doesn’t “look like a doctor.” Some black physician friends have even been asked if they were the janitor.
Unfortunately, patients aren’t the only ones asking. Such doubts have also come from other medical staffers.
She usually has to take a deep breath, then clarify that, yes, she is the doctor. “I’m the one who will be helping you.”
In Cross’ case, the flight attendant reportedly didn’t believe that she was a doctor, even though she identified herself as such.
Cross said she was humiliated and angry that her credentials were questioned and believes it’s because she’s black. A white man who identified himself as a physician did not come under the same scrutiny.
“I naturally jumped into doctor mode,” Cross wrote on Facebook. The flight attendant asked what type of doctor she was and where she worked, according to Cross’ post about the incident earlier this month.
The flight attendant later asked Cross for her help. She apologized and offered SkyMiles to Cross, which Cross said she refused.
For its part, Delta said the incident does not reflect the Atlanta-based company’s culture.
“Discrimination of any kind is never acceptable,” a Delta spokeswoman said in a written statement. “We’ve been in contact with Dr. Cross and one of our senior leaders is reaching out to her to assure her that we’re completing a full investigation.”
For some African-American doctors, it boils down to disrespect and blatant bias.
Think about spending years in medical school only to have a 3-year-old call you a racial epithet or to have a white intern keep asking you to get the charts because he thinks you’re clerical staff.
That’s just a smattering of what has happened to Dr. Ericka Goodwin, a psychiatrist who lives in Atlanta but is licensed to practice in nine states. On one assignment, Goodwin was the doctor on call, which enabled her to park at no charge. The parking lot staff continued to charge her because she “didn’t look like a doctor.”
“This used to be a narrative that was usually discussed in each other’s kitchens, in a text or during girls’ night out,” she said. “But the cultural climate has shifted now and people are tired. I don’t have any African-American physician friends who have not had some kind of experience — male or female.”
Many African-American families have sought out black physicians, in part, to show their children that such achievement is possible.
Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne, a Raleigh, N.C.-based physician in family practice and an assistant professor, always wanted to be a doctor because it was a way to help people.
So imagine when some of the very people she wants to help question her abilities simply based on her race and gender.
“We have to prove we deserve to be here,” she said. “You feel the need to make sure you are carrying yourself in a certain way or that you have to hold yourself to a certain level of excellence because you know people are looking at you.”
Connecticut filmmaker Crystal R. Emery recently produced a documentary, “Black Women in Medicine,” in which she interviewed 18 black female physicians across the nation, including a black organ transplant surgeon. (Watch the documentary trailer.)
The organ transplant surgeon shared that sometimes when she walks into the room, a patient will ask when is the “real” doctor coming.
“Every woman has a story to tell just like that,” said Emery, CEO and founder of URU, The Right to Be, a nonprofit production company that tackles social issues through film, theater, publishing and other arts-based initiatives. “Black doctors, particularly black female doctors, experience racism and sexism every day. One thing about what happened to Tamika Cross is that it has removed the curtain and exposed what racism really looks like. Regardless of whether you are a professional or educated, racism is not rational.”
“This is an everyday occurrence in our lives,” said, Dr. Valencia Walker, neonatologist, a faculty member at the UCLA school of medicine and president of the California-based Association of Black Women Physicians.
She said African-Americans comprise 4 percent of all physicians in the United States. African-American women make up 2 percent of the total number.
“You have to learn how to deal with it in order to get things done and function in a way that a lot of your colleagues are not questioned and challenged. This is both a gender and race issue.”