As a newly-minted resident physician, I arrived at a tertiary hospital in Vancouver just before midnight for one of my first shifts in the emergency room in casual street clothes -- jeans, a T-shirt, and a windbreaker. I began to pack a set of hospital scrubs into my backpack to change into before starting my overnight shift in the emergency room.
I was interrupted by a middle-aged woman who briskly approached me and asked in an a demanding manner: "Do you work here?" I was stunned by the accusatory tone of this hospital clerk.
In my head transpired a mental calculus normally reserved for delineating molecular pathways in the etiology of different diseases. It would dawn on me that as a young black male in casual street clothes at midnight in the act of placing hospital property into my personal bag, there was a likelihood that she thought I was stealing.
After what surely was inordinate period of time, I confirmed that I was, indeed gainfully employed by the hospital while I simultaneously frantically unzipped my jacket to make my photo identification card visible.
Of course, the only way that I could definitively establish that the reason I was accused of attempted theft was being a young black male would be if I would rewind time and enter the same door of the hospital at the same time as a young man of another ethnic background or a woman. This is just as unnecessary as it is impossible.
The hospital clerk thought that the probability that a young black man was stealing from her place of work was sufficiently high that she would audaciously accuse me of this act.
Is this part of the North American dream? Is this what my family left a low-income West African country for?
In his piece for The Atlantic in August 2014 entitled "Self-segregation; Why It's So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson," Robert P. Jones describes ethnic heterogeneity within social networks. I believe that an understanding of the ethnic background of one's closest friends, colleagues, and family members proves useful in understanding issues of discrimination and racial stereotyping in among visible minorities.
The social networks of white respondents were 91 per cent white, on average. Black survey respondents had 65 percent homogeneity in their social networks while the figure was 46 per cent among Hispanics. If the hospital clerk does not have much regular interaction with black individuals either within or outside of the hospital setting -- the study suggests an average white woman would not -- she would not have a place to anchor conceptions of hard-working black men. Without this mental anchor, images on the media and stories from others allow prejudiced biases among us to remain unopposed. The latter is true for everyone.
As a former sociology major, I have both academic and real world experience to confirm that society is external and coercive in its effect on the individual.
If racial profiling occurs to physicians at their own hospitals, who can be safe from this practice?
In the province of British Columbia, where black people comprise only 0.78% of the population, it is entirely plausible that she does not regularly contact with individuals from the African Diaspora. This explanation does not serve as an excuse.
Moving forward, I would encourage others to prove audacious in learning about each other rather than going out of our way to judge each other others based on immutable characteristics. If we do not take time to get to know people of different religions, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic statuses than ourselves, our full humanity remains unawakened.
When we do not purposefully create heterogeneous social networks, our biases remain unperturbed. We will categorize others based on stories from others, from media portrayal and not on their genuine selves.
In an investigation published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology headed by UCLA social psychologist Dr. Phillip Goff, black males older than 10 years of age were significantly less likely to be seen as innocent than their white counterparts when judged by 123 participants of various ethnicities. Results were gathered from an Innocence Scale that was created for the study with reliable psychometrics.
The problem is not that we see colour and the solution is not colour blindness. The problem is what we think, say and do when we see colour. We must deliberately and audaciously approach our discomfort and spend time with those from groups that are foreign to us if we are to challenge our latent, unconscious biases. In doing this, we will understand and benefit from narratives of personhood that are different from our own and see humanity in one another to the fullest.
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