Growing up in Kenya, I never thought much about my identity as a black woman and how the world would treat me. After all, why would I? I was surrounded by other black people, specifically, black women, and my skin colour and heritage never meant that I had different lived experiences to others. I just was - I just existed.
Fast forward to being a medical student in a UK university, and like in most UK medical schools, being part of a minority. I became hyper-aware of my identity and what I represented. It’s something that no one ever prepares you for, especially if you’ve grown up in an environment where you’ve never had to think about how the world relates to you. For me, it dawned as a realisation over time, and after that you have a different view of the world. I always think of it like a coming of age, an clandestine growth spurt. Except this time, it’s all in your psyche and you start to figure out where you fit in the big, wide world.
Now as a black female junior doctor, my day-to-day experiences on the job are starkly different to my colleagues.
It’s in the way some patients are surprised when I introduce myself as their doctor or the fact that even though I introduce myself with both my names, I can’t bear to have another person either tell me my surname is too difficult to pronounce, butcher the pronunciation or ask me where I’m really from, so I end up saying, “Just call me doctor *insert first name*.” My full name is on my name badge and I notice the uneasy glances when colleagues or patients internally debate if calling me Dr *surname* vs Dr *first name* is worth the effort. I appreciate the colleagues and the staff who ask me to pronounce it for them so that they learn how to, but generally these are few and far in between.
It's in the way I’ve resulted to hoarding some scrubs that actually fit me and have reclaimed as my own and have gone the extra mile to get my own better fitting scrubs. The type that are not too frumpy or too tight in the wrong places. It’s in the way my hair or any new hairstyles is a topic of discussion whenever I meet people, and they ask to run their hands through it without my consent. It’s the way I’m frequently mistaken for another black member of staff on the ward because, “You both look so similar, I couldn’t tell you apart with your hair different this week.”
It’s in the way the system is set up for everyone else and you need to fit in it. I remember being in theatre as a medical student and at that point, my locs were shoulder length, but they couldn’t fit in those flimsy theatre caps even when I tried to combine two of them! A friendly anaesthetist saw me struggling in the changing room and went out of her way to get me the bonnet type scrub cap and since them I always have a stash of those types of scrub cap in my bag for any impromptu trip to theatres. Now my locs are bra-strap length and I’ve bought myself several vibrant African print theatre-caps which I proudly wear for my scheduled theatre days and they keep my locs tucked away neatly and might I add, fashionably. I’ve received more compliments on them than any other item of clothing I own and when I put them on, I feel that they, in their own small way, make the system fit me.
It's in the way black patients, especially women, react when you walk into the room and introduce yourself as their doctor. It’s in the way there’s always a subtle nod or smile of acknowledgement whenever you meet a black colleague of any profession working in the same hospital, let alone, department.
Sadly, it’s also in the way that you get treated on the job – there are higher standards for you to meet and you need to work at least twice as hard as they do just to get the same recognition. I was once pulled to the side by a senior who, in response to my emotional breakdown at the end of a tough on-call shift, told me, in not as many words, “You are a black woman who wants to do surgery – people already think you don’t fit in and will undermine you. You need to be tougher.” Although the context of this was ill-intentioned, it does summarise succinctly the way the world sees me. To the world, I am a black woman, therefore, I am simultaneously iron-clad yet undeserving of accolades. I am to be stoic but not too much to earn the label of ‘angry black woman’. I am to be reserved or risk being labelled the ‘loud, aggressive one’.
All these experiences have shaped the person - the black woman, the doctor - I am today. I will no doubt accumulate both reaffirming and destructive experiences as I progress in my career. In the future, I know I will have highs and lows as a black woman in medicine which may pale in comparison to the ones in the past. I have been fortunate to have people who pour their cup into mine so that it never runs dry – I am working on keeping it at least half-full most days. The ones who remind you who you are and what you represent everyday – your ancestors’ wildest dream. You are here, you exist, fully and unapologetically.