As a child I really struggled to figure out how to feel accepted in a world where a simple piece of cloth made me look different. Often, people tried to tell me that you should be proud to be different, proud of your ethnicity and your culture but when I was 12, I was the only covered muslim student at Dalton Middle School-- being different at this age was not a good thing.
I will spare you all the "mean girls" stories that I actually lived but I will tell you that I remember eating lunch on the bathroom toilet way too many times because the group of so called friends that I used to sit with invited a new caucasian student to sit in my seat in the lunch room leaving me with no where to sit except for at a table by myself. Even though I tried to keep my seat by rushing to the lunch room before anyone got there or packing my lunch so I wouldn't have to wait in the long lunch lines, I soon gave up when the "queen of the clan" confronted me and told me that none of them wanted me sitting with them. I was so devastated, I had no other friends, this group of girls were the only group of girls I knew because we were in the advanced curriculum courses where the same group of people were in the same classes for every subject, EVERY-SINGLE-YEAR! What was I suppose to do?
Today, here I am twelve years later in a masters program completing one of the most challenging degrees, feeling more confident than ever yet still facing the same racism.
My family medicine rotation is in a small town in Tennessee, about an hour away from Knoxville. During my first week here, I jumped right in to start seeing patients-- I knocked on the door (of who was probably patient 3 of the day) and introduced myself to an older gentleman, asked him if he would be okay with me as his provider. The patient nodded and waved me in to sit down. Since I've been seeing patients alone since January I was pretty comfortable asking him questions to figure out what was going on. A few questions in and I noticed the patients tone was sharp, slightly rude and annoyed. I turned away from my computer and looked at him and he was glaring back at me. I apologized for the amount of questions that I was asking but the review of systems portion of the exam was usually time consuming and I had to be thorough to make sure I don't miss anything. He paused for a minute and asked me where I was living, I smiled at him and took this as an opportunity to build a rapport. I told him I was living in Tennessee, and he responded in a puzzled tone, "and are you going to stay in Tennessee or are you going back to where you came from?" I then knew that his tone had nothing to do with the questions I was asking, it was about my nationality. I looked at him in disbelief but decided to not let it get to me. I broke eye contact and told him I was thinking about staying in Tennessee. After that, I went straight back to my ROS questions, I felt like I wanted to get out of that room sooner rather than later.
I finished all the questions and washed my hands to start my physical exam on him. He started again, so what religion are you? Muslim, I said. He said well you may want to consider leaving this area because this is the Bible Belt. I stopped my physical exam and told him actually, when people get to know me and what I stand for they usually see past the head piece I'm wearing. And he said I don't think people in this town will. I told him to rest assured, I have been dealing with this my whole life.
The next patient was a pastor, he wasn't nearly as forward but asked me why I wear a scarf, a question I love to answer. After explaining to him the purpose and how modesty protects women, he went on to say yeah but you sure would look a lot prettier without it. 🤦🏻♀️ Is this ignorance or simply an inability to understand a religion other than yours?
Finally, I had a younger patient, probably 32-33ish. I asked him if I could be his provider for the day and he nodded. He came in for a psychiatric problem, which I find myself to be pretty familiar with since I have already done a psych rotation. I started asking him questions about his anxiety level, when his depression peaks and how well his medications work to control his mood. Twenty minutes in and I was still asking him about factors that are influencing his life and his responses were 3-4 min long, so I just listened. As I was concluding my notes he looked at me and said, I have to be honest at first I was hesitant to have you as my doctor because I don't know you and you look different then me, but then you started asking questions and it has probably been the best assessment I have had since I've been to my psychiatrist. I was confused for a split second, did I just get complimented by someone in this town?
I guess if patients just give you enough time, they will come to realize that your sole purpose is to try to help them get better. The way that you dress will be new to them in the beginning but once they realize that you do in fact know your stuff and you do care, they will not just accept you but also respect you and want to see you again.