I can still remember one of my first encounters of discrimination and not-so-implicit racism on the job as an emergency room doctor. That morning in August 2009, I walked along the bright orange walls of the Dayton hospital where I was doing my rounds, greeting patients, and going from room to room. I entered a white man’s room. He was 87 and had a warmth to him.
With my clipboard in hand, coveted white coat on, stethoscope around my neck, I greeted him. “Hi, I’m Dr. Feaster.” (I remember it feeling so good saying that to patients after becoming an ER doc—I worked really hard to get there!) “What brings you here today?”
He was there because of chest pains. But even before he could tell me what was wrong, he couldn’t get past, well, me.
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“Wow!” he said, chuckling. “You’re a woman? You’re a doctor? And you’re Black! You must be really smart.”
The room grew quiet. My mind was racing: Did he really say that? What do I say in response? I have to be a professional and not give anyone in this room any reason to believe the stereotypes of the “angry Black woman.” It took everything in me to not respond with, “Oh, you know, there’s that special part on the MCAT just for us Black women!”
Instead, I smiled and asked him again, “So, what brings you here today?”
They don’t prepare you for moments like that in medical school—and they don’t prepare you for the mental toll it will take.
My career as an ER doctor can be so overwhelming and exhausting simply given the nature of the job: long hours, dealing with illness and encountering death, communicating loss to families and loved ones. But that's not all I face every single day. You have to add the racism, microaggressions, and unconscious bias minority women in my position face in all areas of my work.
I'll give you another example. One time, I was sitting at my desk typing away, when I heard these two white nurses walk up behind me. And before I could even turn around and speak to them, all I heard was, "No, no, no, no, no!"
It turned out, one of the white nurses was about to touch my braids without my permission, when the other nurse yelled at her. "Dr. Feaster has taught me that you never ever touch a Black woman's hair without asking!"
I wear my hair in different styles. I might wear a wig one day, and then my natural hair on another day. (For the remainder of 2020, I'm wearing braids.)
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know that,” the nurse said. “So, can I touch your hair?"
"No,” I told her. And then I made sure to add, “That concludes our lesson on cultural sensitivity for today.”
Add COVID-19 into the mix, and the emotional repercussions hit me even harder. Not only do I work anywhere from 12- to 14-hour shifts full of interactions like the ones I've described, but I am also now regularly treating patients for a deadly virus that disproportionately affects people that look like me (with both higher infection rates and mortality rates) for a variety of reasons rooted in racism, including disparities in health care access as well as the fact that data collection on how the disease impacts people often leaves out communities of color. I'm 42, and I can't help but look at young Black patients in the ER with the disease and think, That could be me—a fear and unfair reality that only compounds the mental strain.
One important part of my self-care toolkit: offering teachable moments when whites still don’t understand how their behavior impacts me.
Another time, a white nurse came to me and complained about how she wasn’t getting respect from the white male doctors. She said that kind of unfairness could potentially be a discrimination case.
As she went on complaining, I finally told her, “Congratulations, now you know what it feels like to be a Black person every day.” The look on her face was priceless. I thought her mouth was going to fall off.
“I'm very serious,” I said. “All the anger and emotion you're feeling right now, I feel and deal with that on a daily basis. You're talking about one instance. For me, I'm talking about my entire life. This is what I feel. So, I want you to put that in context and think about that for a minute, and see if it changes your attitudes about certain things that you're seeing in the world.”
And another time, a white female doctor came over to me at work, fuming. “I’m tired of patients thinking I’m the nurse or the secretary!” she said.
“Have they ever mistaken you for the janitor?” I asked her.
“The janitor?” she looked confused. “No.”
“Have they ever mistaken you for their tech assistant?”
I know she was trying to connect with me by saying our discrimination experiences are the same, but they are not. And they will never be.
These teachable moments make a big difference for my mental health. In my own way, I’m improving the environment I’m committed to every day, which ultimately helps long, trying days feel a little more manageable and comfortable.
I will continue to be *all* the things I am—a strong Black woman, doctor, girlfriend, mother, and sister-friend—and not let others chip away at my mental health.
I know that people have high expectations of me. I was raised with the understanding that Black women have to work twice as hard or have a superior work performance to even be considered average. I know I'm meant to fulfill a doctor-superhero image on top of that. But I'm as human as everybody else.
So part of how I allow myself to feel all my raw, human feelings and take care of myself is by turning to my physician girlfriends. Black female physicians—there are only 2 percent of us in the country—have to navigate this mental journey together.
"Black female physicians—there are only 2 percent of us in the country—have to navigate this mental journey together."
That’s the good thing about having doctor friends in different fields—one of them happens to be a therapist, and we make a point to speak every week. We unload some of the things that we're seeing and feeling because we understand it. We tell each other things like, “I don’t know how to explain this feeling”—because we know and understand what that feeling is even when we can’t find the words for it.
I'm also making an effort to be more in the moment and make time with my family count. I am cherishing my children and appreciate those moments more than ever. I find myself looking at them from head to toe, sort of taking them in and observing all the details. I practice mindfulness and meditation and I am connecting more with my faith. I stay still and listen to my heart for about 10 to 15 minutes. It’s amazing how much you can unpack in that silence and by letting yourself just be.