Jayma Anne Montgomery
HOW MINORITIES BECOME PROS AT NAVIGATING SOCIAL LANDMINES
Several years ago, I was asked to speak at an HBCU pre-med event. At the time I was a fairly new attending at the Fort Eustis Army Medical Center Internal Medicine Clinic and a new mom. We gathered in a small, dimly lit lecture hall on a random Tuesday evening as I prepared to field questions from these pre-med students. I had been told that these would mainly be racial minorities looking to navigate the intimidating medical school application process. I was excited to mold their young minds. My husband accompanied me and recorded some video for posterity. I gave a brief overview of my medical and military training and how I had ended up becoming an Internist. Then we headed into the rapid-fire questioning segment. The first student who asked me about race was rather timid. I don’t recall the actual question, just the fact that he asked it with such little conviction that I wasn’t quite sure what he was asking at all. What I did know was that he was testing the waters and that the way that I received his question would determine the tone of the rest of the evening.
Being the straight shooter that I am, I let them know that they should absolutely expect to be judged unfairly by their appearance at times. I encouraged them to view this as a friendly challenge to consistently prove wrong rather than a weighty chip to wear on their shoulders. From here the questions flowed easily. They didn’t hold back. I told them story after story about me getting mistaken for everything other than the attending…the secretary, the nurse, even the janitor. I told them of patients refusing to have me as their doctor after taking one look at me as well as attending physicians who deemed me incapable of becoming an internist and who put roadblocks in place to try and hinder me from completing the program. My upbringing had conditioned me to avoid terms like racism and sexism to a fault because I didn’t like pronouncing judgment on people’s hearts. But my residency program had a clear pattern of treating its handful of minorities unfairly. When I brought it to my assistant program director’s attention, things got a lot better for me. Sadly, this did absolutely nothing for the other minorities in the program at the time or the ones that came after me. The students devoured my stories eagerly late into the evening.
Years later, I find myself much less optimistic and extremely jaded by the medical profession. The patients haven’t changed much and neither has the complexity of the medicine itself. But the systems and the vehicles by which physicians extend care to patients have changed drastically. I wish I could say that health and safety are the priority, but they aren’t. Cash and contracts are. I have a problem with that and because I won’t keep quiet about it, I can’t seem to stay put in a healthcare organization.
Elie Mystal’s article explicating Ketanji Brown’s pregnant pause was an important piece for young black women like me regardless of faction. I’m not a self-ascribed Democrat or Progressive by any stretch. But I felt it resonate loudly over my young medical career as I’m sure it did for many young people of color who know what it takes to ‘make it.’ You silently bleed for years in ways that your pale face counterparts never have to because they have wealth, connections, a name, and physical features that mean that they almost never have to earn anything. Without my undergraduate scholarships (yes, plural) I would have had to go to community college because I had no family wealth or pedigree to stand on to get me into an Ivy League medical school. I worked three jobs to pay for a car, MCAT prep courses, and medical school applications all while living at home with my parents. I married a pastor’s son who used his life’s savings to pay for our wedding during my second year of medical school. I got a military medical scholarship precisely so that I would now have no medical school debt and a chance to give our children a life of financial freedom.
I now live in a relatively wealthy suburb of Charlotte, NC. There are generations of Caucasian families here who have built wealth dating back centuries likely stemming from dark skinned origins. They don’t have to earn respect. But for some reason, when I walk into the room wearing a white coat with Stacy Comer, Internal Medicine Physician printed on it, this still does not compel most them to call me Dr. Comer. If I was a gray-haired white man this would never happen. This is simply a fact that I don’t know how to change. But it does bother me. To further complicate things, my black counterparts assume no better of me although they are always delighted to be mistaken by my identity. And so, I choose to adopt an attitude of grace about it because being angry and acting entitled is just plain exhausting.
I don’t know why it is that despite my glowing military resume, I have never been offered a seat at the table at any of my post-military jobs. In fact, the one position where I actually was the medical director, I was forced to resign for daring to carry out the duties of that position. What I am finding is that the pause never seems to save me. I choose my words and my tone as carefully as I can. I am professional and courteous in all of my dealings. It doesn’t matter. In the end, I am always ultimately accused of being unprofessional and hostile. Why? Because I dare to speak the truth and call out bad behavior. The good old boys are successful because they are willing to look the other way and perpetuate all of the bad behavior they know is going on behind closed doors. I don’t want your boy’s club. I don’t want your raise. I don’t want your company car. I don’t want your country club. I won’t hold my tongue. The problem isn’t me, it’s your institution. I’m staying on the fringes where I can still make some of my own rules and recognize myself in the mirror. I won’t be the one breaking barriers because I will apparently be the one walking away. But, I’m super proud of Ketanji for recognizing the importance of the moment and keeping her cool despite being heavily baited. I still know how to dance around those social landmines with the best of them. I just no longer care to do so most of the time. But I thank God for people like her who are willing to do so on the public stage with integrity.