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Lessons for the Black Girl Considering Medicine

At SheMD, we acknowledge how each individual has a different experience in medicine. We often discuss medicine through the lens of gender, but today we wanted to share how RACE and GENDER impact the experience of being a physician. Dr. Ashlea Winfield joins us to discuss her experiences as a Black Girl in Medicine. While this post looks at the intersection of race and gender in careers in medicine, the content is so important for all of us no matter our race or gender identity.

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1. People won’t always support you, even if it’s their job.

My mentors always encouraged me to reach higher. I was pushed by my elementary school teachers to pursue the gifted and talented program, but things changed when it was time for college planning. I remember sitting down in the counselor’s office and excitedly drafting my list of desired universities. I also remember the look of disapproval on her face as I read off my top choice, an in-state private university. She immediately told me that the institution was too high of a reach and that I should consider the local technical college, not only due to cost but also due to the competitive nature of the private institution. There I was in an accelerated program with excellent grades, great standardized test scores, and a competitive resume being told that I was not good enough. Instead of offering advice on where to seek financial aid or how to strengthen my application, I was discouraged from applying altogether. I still pushed ahead. I received a sizeable scholarship package and went to the University of my dreams. It was the first time that I was told I could not do something by the very people put in place to support me, but it would not be the last.

As soon as college started, I sought out the pre-med counselor. I sat down in her office to talk about optimizing my coursework for a career in medicine and was instead handed a folder about the public health program. At the time I thought it was because she wanted to broaden my interests, but in the end, it became clear that she was giving me an alternative career option because she didn’t think I was good enough. Two of my African American female classmates were also encouraged to switch to a public health focus after meeting with her. Meanwhile, our peers were pursuing advanced biological science classes to not only strengthen their applications but to prepare them for the rigors of medical school. If her goal was to keep African American candidates from pursuing a career in medicine, she did a darn good job. I was the only African American from my class of high achieving students to become a medical doctor.

To the Black girl considering being a doctor, don’t let them deter you. Work hard and keep pushing. To both of my former counselors, I’d like to say, I am a doctor in spite of you and not because of you.

2. You don’t have to change yourself. Be you.

Doctor’s look and sound a certain way, right? I grew up in a small rural town. My accent is heavy and I’m a little loud. For years I felt like I had to change the way that I spoke so that I would be seen as intelligent. I can trace it back to the 4th grade. I remember being forced by my teacher to stand up in class and to repeatedly pronounce words until they were said “properly.” I remember looking out at my classmates faces as I stood there humiliated. I carried this with me throughout the years. At school, I would talk to my friends at school one way and a different way at home with my family. I can still feel the tremendous anxiety I had the first time a friend from school came to my home. How would I reconcile the two versions of me? Even today this is still something I struggle with, but I now make it a point to try and always be my true self. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

It’s not just the way we speak. Black women are also judged based on the way we wear your hair in the workplace. I have worn my tresses naturally kinky for the last 9 years and EVERY time that I straighten my hair, I am told it looks better and is more befitting of a doctor.

Imagine being told that the way your hair grows out of your head isn’t good enough to take care of patients. This concern is shared every time a medical student asks if they should wear a more natural hairstyle versus a more straightened or Eurocentric look during interview season. If you need to change the way your hair grows out of your head to be accepted, then let it go. It is not the place for you.

As a resident, I have made it a point to be me. Screw respectability politics and what people think a doctor should look like and sound like. My hair is natural and so is the way I speak. Being this bold black girl is part of why I am a chief resident at one of the toughest programs in the country.

3. Don’t let the microaggressions tear you down.

I won’t spend too much time here. We have all been mistaken for everything other than the doctor. While wearing my bright red “DOCTOR” badge I have been presumed to be cafeteria staff. As the senior most person on the team, I have been bypassed by support staff for the white male medical student. I have had a Black woman look me in my face and tell me she didn’t “want to deal with her own kind.” Introducing yourself as a doctor, embroidering your scrubs, and wearing a white coat won’t protect you from implicit bias. African American women comprise less than 2% of MD’s. Just gently correct their error and hold your head high. You are a unicorn!

Sometimes it is exhausting being us. Just know that you aren’t alone. Reach out, let it out, and keep it moving.

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You have written some lovely advice that embodies both kindness and grace in handling the biases of others while keeping a steady focus on your dreams. I am white, female, and also from a remote rural area. Twenty years into my career, I still encounter folks who are literally shocked when they learn I am a plastic surgeon, because I don’t “act like one.” My daughters are biracial, but I believe their biggest hurdles will be based on how the world still perceives women to be somehow less capable than men, rather than their skin color. I hope they overcome as beautifully as you have. Keep leading by your great example and thank you for inspiring greatness, and humilit…

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