Home LOCAL NEWS HARVARD DEGREE DID NOT PROTECT ME FROM RACISM

HARVARD DEGREE DID NOT PROTECT ME FROM RACISM

A Zimbabwean doctor, Tafadzwa Muguwe,  has spoken about his experiences of racism, both in the UK and the USA.

Here is his story “When I began my unlikely journey from Zimbabwe to Swarthmore College, I was about as uninitiated as a Black man can be about racism.

As an intern, I received a page from nursing about a belligerent elderly white patient who refused to take evening medications until he spoke to “the doctor.” I walked into the room as the staff wrestled him, and the nurse identified me as the doctor who would address his concerns.

The patient yelled that he did not want to be seen by a Black person and demanded I leave. I left, humiliated. Despite obvious dementia, the patient — whom I had never met — betrayed a strong visceral reaction towards me.

A patient’s prejudice can ruin my day but does not override my sense of duty towards him or her. The prejudice of a peer or authority figure, on the other hand, is more difficult to navigate.

Early in training, I received feedback from a professor who remarked, “Internationals like you do well on tests but struggle with clinical skills.” Ironically, I was receiving credit for testing well, but in the same breath, the goalposts were shifted.

It wasn’t the last time I would hear from this professor, and ultimately, these encounters proved detrimental. I
wondered, what do others with influence believe? How is the institution failing people like me?

Once, a senior leader praised my team’s presentation then added, “but you’re different.” Is being “different” good or unwanted? I decided not to ask, lest I exacerbated any concerns. There may have been nothing in the comment, and indeed, in many others that have given me pause.

However, over time, I’ve developed a sensitivity from the accumulation of these microaggressions. It’s a hypersensitivity that leads me to quickly dissect seemingly innocuous situations. Like the professor who wrote
my recommendation letter, but also confused me with another Black classmate for years. Or the patient who assumed I was the trainee and my white student was in charge.

Or the patient’s family member who asked if I was “here to pick up the food tray,” despite my doctor’s white coat. “Small” encounters leave me trying to distinguish simple ignorance from put-downs.

It’s never clear-cut and so I walk through life in an exhausting state of being.

I came to the gradual realization that, far from being isolated, these experiences revealed deeply held assumptions and attitudes about me as a Black person. These attitudes constitute the scaffolding that is structural racism, which manifests daily in the lived realities of Black people.

I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I was born in the U.S. Frequent subtle and less-subtle messages betray the assumption that I’m lacking in smarts, untrustworthy or even a threat. These messages assault the ego, stifle creativity, and blunt optimism.

Considering the legacy of slavery, mass incarceration, segregation, racism in policing and white supremacist ideology, I sincerely doubt that I could have escaped the unrelenting reach of structural racism in my early years. Many don’t.

I am constantly awed by my African American friends who have only known this crucible. They are exemplars of brilliance, grace and resilience in the face of indignities.

Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many others killed by the police are today’s visible victims of structural racism.

Countless others are victims to less visible injustices. While it’s easier to ascribe racism to the heinous actions of a Derek Chauvin or even an Amy Cooper, there are many ways to be complicit as sponsors or beneficiaries of unjust structures.

We must dismantle racism in ourselves and all around us. Black lives depend on it and the health of our society requires it. Doctors aren’t the only ones who can save lives.

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