The Uncomfortable Look

He was a young man in police custody, admitted to the ICU with diabetic ketoacidosis. As I reviewed the medical record, I was struck by the fact that he had been in college about a year ago. I walked into his room and met a Black man in his 20s, shackled to the bed with handcuffs, with a police officer present. He was mild mannered and didn’t fit the stereotype of someone in custody. I could not help but wonder how he went from being a college student to a prisoner in about a year. I asked the officer to step outside for me to see the patient, which he obliged.

The patient seemed to relax a bit, perhaps because I am Black myself. Still, I felt uncomfortable asking the patient about his alleged crime.

“What were you arrested for?” I asked.

“I was driving and on the phone with my mom,” he replied, “when suddenly cops pulled me over and said I fit the description of someone who robbed a 7-Eleven store.”

To his shock, he was arrested. He shared that he had been studying to be an EMT. Because it was a weekend, he was held in jail for court on Monday. He was a diabetic without his insulin. He was insulin dependent, went into diabetic ketoacidosis, and was brought to the hospital. I was outraged.

“That’s terrible!” I said.

I was shocked to hear his story. This might have been me. His life was suddenly upended merely because of an assumed resemblance. I believed him. We treated him and released him to the custody of the police with insulin and syringes, and he left the ICU. Though I searched long and hard for him later, I never found out how the story ended for him. I sincerely hope he found justice.

Sadly, this is a common experience for many Black people who are victims of racial profiling, mistaken identity, and police brutality. As a Black man, being a physician doesn’t make me immune from this.

I had a meeting at a friend’s house. I happened to be the only Black person in the group. During the meeting, the friend’s phone rang. It was a neighbor. The neighbor had noticed a Black man enter her friend’s house and wanted to make sure she was okay. My friend reassured the neighbor, but it was an awkward encounter for the group. How could this not have been racially motivated, since it was directed toward the only Black person to enter the house? I was uneasy and uncomfortable. What if the neighbor had called the police?

On another occasion, after an event, I stood on a sidewalk in conversation with a friend who happened to be a White woman. A van suddenly pulled up, slowed down, and stopped across from us. The driver asked if everything was okay. I uttered a quick reply that everything was fine, without thinking much of the question. He didn’t drive off, which was a bit unnerving. The driver pulled out a police badge and flashed it quietly at us. He paused briefly, almost looking for a response, and then drove off. My friend and I looked at each other. The policeman had seen a Black man standing with a White woman and wanted to make sure she was safe. What was even odder was that the driver was Black. White people are not the only ones who racially profile.

I am viewed differently with and without my doctor’s coat. In the hospital hallways, I am more likely to be greeted by a random person if I am in my doctor’s attire. However, when in regular clothes in the same hallways, people are more likely to walk by without much acknowledgment. If I walk into a high-end store, I am likely to get the “look” that Black people are very familiar with—the look you get when you feel that your every move is being monitored by the staff, who keep offering their unwanted assistance. If you are reading this and are Black, you know this. If you are White, this experience will be foreign to you.

The whole world was rocked by the gruesome death of George Floyd. The issues of racism and police brutality seized the nation’s attention. People of all races came out to protest, even defying a pandemic. They sought justice for not just Floyd but also the many Black people who have suffered at the hands of racism and police brutality. From such outrage can be born opportunity.

Medicine must seize this opportunity and find practical ways to fight this disease in our own ranks. In our profession, racism abounds. It is easier for us to march on the streets or take a knee when others are doing the same. However, we have to stand up against racism even when it is no longer fashionable. Lip service will not suffice. Medical schools and residencies should not merely be trying to fill quotas when seeking to increase the number of minority applicants. It is also important to provide support and nurturing to ensure that these trainees thrive in environments that may be very foreign to them. In addition, we need more Black and minority representation in leadership positions in medicine. Diversity means every voice is heard.

During medical school and residency, Black people can disproportionately end up suffering from not only bullying disguised as toughening up trainees but also racist abuse. Watch for it. This might be an attending or fellow student overtly or covertly questioning whether a Black student made it into medical school based on race while questioning that student’s competence. When you see a Black colleague on your ward team singled out by a superior, ask yourself if it is because of their skin color. We need zero tolerance against all forms of racism, which can often be subtle. If a patient makes a racist comment toward a member of the team, all team members must show solidarity. It must be dealt with swiftly.

Speak up. Have our backs. Being colorblind is not a solution.

Dr. Jude Dumfeh ’04 is a hospitalist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital outside of Chicago. This article originally appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine as part of its “On Being a Doctor” series.