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Finding Absences in Representation

She approached me and said, “Can I tell you something?” As we drifted slightly away from the cluster of white coats that I had previously stood with, she stated, “I just wanted to say that I’m so proud of you.” Was the rarity of seeing a black man donning a white coat the stimulus for the bout of pride expressed by this middle-aged black woman? In a flock of medical students, her statement served as an acknowledgment of my presence in the middle of a Queens, NYC hospital. Surprisingly, she has not been the first to do so in my first two years of medical school.

I still remember a pair of young eyes staring at me, sitting on a crowded bus. They belonged to a young black child and as we made eye contact, her gaze left mine and she asked her mother if I was a doctor. Her mother mumbled something in response and, as the two got off at the next stop, the young girl waved a short goodbye in my direction. My shoulders were carrying my short student’s white coat on my way to a hospital on the west side of Manhattan. I instantly lamented this missed opportunity to rattle off a few witty words of encouragement to this girl. However, my mind was preoccupied with trying to recall information to maximize my few weekly hours in the hospital and I resolved to myself that I would be prepared next time.

Perhaps my few words of encouragement may have led her — or any other child that lacks exposure to role models that look like them — to consider a career in health care. Similar to the middle-aged woman I met in Queens, this young girl had noticed my presence. Had I not been on that bus, her day would have continued without realizing that she had missed anything. It is easy to acknowledge a presence, but there is a dire need to inspect for absences in representation.

A recent New York Times article celebrated the election of ImeIme Umana as the first black, female president of the Harvard Law Review. The piece proceeds to describe the selection process and address the barriers that prevented the election of the first black woman in the 130 year history of the prestigious student-run law journal. Reframing these barriers would read as nearly 50 years before the first black man and over 130 years before the first woman graduated from Harvard Law School, which was founded in 1817. These are not only absences of presence, but also absences of perspective. Before the implementation of policies promoting inclusion, who in the classroom spoke out about the impact of laws on minority groups? Who spoke — from intimate knowledge — about what it means to be black, woman or both to broaden the purview of the white men being taught by white men?

As an MD/PhD candidate, this piece about Ms. Umana led me to look for the presence of gender or racial diversity in science and medicine. Less than 3% of all medical students nationwide are black males. Together in both my medical and graduate school courses, I have had a total of five black, male professors, three of whom were guest lecturers from other institutions. Moreover, in a quick search of the editors of arguably the top five medical and scientific journals, I found little to no gender or racial diversity: in the past 50 years, these journals presented a handful of female editors and no black editors.

As scientists and physicians, we take pride in our ability to critically analyze the results of the latest experiment or the clinical presentation of patients, but have only recently started to turn an introspective eye to acknowledge the absences of representation in our fields. As previously mentioned, the inclusion of groups often underrepresented is critical to provide essential, eye-opening viewpoints to both faculty and peers. Acknowledging and addressing these absences will provide a presence: a presence that can show and tell future doctors, scientists or lawyers from similar backgrounds that “I am a doctor [for me, a doctor in training]. You can be a doctor, too.” These are the words that I failed to share with the girl on the bus but am now ready to vocalize.

Kasopefoluwa Oguntuyo (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Sope Oguntuyo is a 2nd year MD/PhD candidate at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Before matriculating into the MSTP, Sope was a Biology Major with Chemistry and History Minors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His interests include translational biomedical research, global medicine/science, soccer, rock climbing, and reading.