Listening and Learning: Systemic Racism, Racial and Sexual Disparities in Women’s Health

Part 8: Say it Louder: That was so Weird!

By Júlia Sroda Agudogo

Júlia Sroda Agudogo

“I thought you were a regular African-American!”, a black gym manager at Wilson Gym exclaimed in my senior year of college. He usually sat at the front desk, we waved and smiled at each other whenever I entered the gym. After a couple years of silent greetings, he finally heard me chatting, he instantly noticed my accent, and knew I was different. I’m an international student from Ghana and I’ve been in the US for seven years. I studied biomedical engineering at Duke and stayed for medical school. As a black woman in STEM, I often find myself in spaces where I am looked at to speak for the black experience in America. Because I am black, I am often mistaken for a Black American or African American. I can speak only for my own unique experience as one black foreigner from a world where being black is the norm.

I’ve had many opportunities to participate in the Durham community, including presenting at the Triangle Global Health Consortium.

A week ago, I ended my second year of med school. I spent the year doing clinical rotations at ‘Big Duke’, Durham VA, and Duke Regional hospitals. I loved learning about how the knowledge I had only seen in textbooks could be applied to help people stricken by disease. It’s an honor to be able to witness the dedication, compassion, and intellect that our healthcare workers bring 24/7 to treat people; especially during this pandemic.

The joy I found in learning to help people was constantly in tension with the health manifestations of centuries of systematic racism against the black community in Durham. My first night in the ED, I saw two gunshot victims. All black. Three cases of cocaine overdose. All black.

Image from NPR

As I carried on through the year, the disturbing trend of preventable morbidity and mortality disproportionately presenting in my black patients continued. We all know the horrible statistics ranging from heart disease, maternal mortality, and more recently COVID. I have had several conversations with some of my black colleagues in med school who have witnessed the same patterns.

The magnitude of the burden of systemic racism on all aspects of life in the black community is astonishing. When I was asked to reflect on my own experiences with racism for this blog, my first instinct was ‘I have been lucky, I haven’t been affected much’. My relatively minor experiences with discrimination just didn’t compare with the blatancy of racism I routinely witness in the hospital and through my patients.

However, my best friend from college snapped some sense into me. ‘Do you answer questions in a group and no one listens until it is echoed by a white person? Did people routinely gasp in surprise when you share you studied engineering? She went on, ‘Didn’t that one lady literally call you black face?’ Yes, I answered.

Black face.

Duke health care workers marched in support of racial justice and equality. Image from Duke Today.

At the end of my family medicine rotation. One of my supervising doctors, told me that I should prepare myself before starting my inpatient rotations because some patients may not be very cooperative with me because of my thick accent. I entered the in-patient world in anticipation of rejection. However, most of the time, I was pleasantly surprised, and patients were friendly and receptive to me. During one overnight shift, I helped admit a middle aged woman who required an endoscopy the following morning. She was pleasant and I accompanied her for her procedure and stayed with her as she awoke from anesthesia. The procedure had caused her pain and she woke up in a bad mood. I attempted to calm her by putting my hand on her as I had done several times before. She aggressively shoved me away and shout ‘black face’ again and again at me. My resident and I attempted to calm her and tried to prevent her from pulling out her lines. In a couple minutes, she calmed down. When we left to check on another patient, my resident said to me, ‘well, that was weird’. I nodded, ‘yes’. I came back to see my patient before leaving for home and she apologized and kept telling me how beautiful she thought I was.

I left for home that night wondering why my patient had shoved me and made racist comments. Did the meds cloud her judgement or reveal what she had thought from our first encounter? I don’t know. I was comforted that my resident acknowledged my mistreatment, even with the simple statement, ‘that was so weird’. To me that said, ‘she shouldn’t have done that’, and ‘I see you’. Sometimes, we are not in positions of power to change the system. However, we can always do something in our collective fight against racial discrimination on the systemic and individual level.

Join a protest, read a book, or just say it when something is hella weird. Stretch yourself!

Júlia and friends at her college graduation.

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