Being an ally for justice to patients and colleagues requires taking action. Doing or saying something, literally anything, when someone is mistreated is better than nothing.
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | September 3, 2020 | 3 min read
By Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins Medicine
“Kali, I’d hate for you to project your fear of discrimination and miss out on opportunities.”
It’s been three years since an instructor told me this, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Much like other microaggressions, racist comments, and experiences where I was singled out for being “different” in a professional context, this experience is ingrained in my memory. There I was, sitting in a lecture about negotiation during my final year of residency, eagerly awaiting advice to quell my anxiety about going on the job market. Instead, the speaker, a figure of authority, told me, a Black, queer woman, not to worry about discrimination.
I was stunned. I wondered whether I had actually overestimated the impact of my race or gender in the context of negotiation. Was it true, did I need not worry so much about being treated differently? Was I being too demanding by asking for reassurance?
I spent the remainder of the lecture convinced that I was overreacting. After all, I had proof—my wrongness was validated by my classmates’ silence, which signaled their implicit agreement with the instructor.
After the lecture, a couple of my co-residents came to me to say, “that was messed up,” or, “I wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say.”
It wasn’t until then that I realized what happened was a problem and perhaps not my fault at all. I walked home feeling hurt, confused, and most of all, alone. If I couldn’t count on my peers, then who could I count on?
As one of the only or few Black and queer and women in medicine, I relied on relationships with non-minority allies to navigate the complex, often hidden social dynamics of medicine. Dynamics that white, straight, cis-gendered people navigated with ease. An ease that is almost unrecognizable, because those dynamics are dictated by straight, cis-gendered people in the first place. So, in order to be seen and heard, I’ve learned to vigilantly advocate on my own behalf. And when I can’t, I hoped that those who I consider allies would advocate for me.
If I’m honest, over the past few years I’ve lost my optimism in the strength of my relationships with non-minority allies. I’ve lost more than optimism, I’m barely holding on to hope. I’ve felt dismayed by this experience, and many others. I’m starting to believe that it’s best not to rely on my peers, colleagues, or bystanders to advocate for or with me. I’m writing with the little hope I have left, that whoever is reading this will prove me wrong and stand up for someone who can’t stand up for themselves on their own.
If you’re not a holder of a minority identity, and want to be an ally, I recommend you start by doing the following two things:
1. If you see something, say something.
If you’re a participant or observer to a dynamic that you feel is harmful, do anything to interrupt it. Even if you aren’t sure, just check in. A brief check-in to ask if everyone is okay, or even to name that you noticed something, can take just a moment and interrupt a traumatic memory that could last for years.
2. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Realistically consider whether you’ll get fired if you speak up, face serious retaliation, or risk physical harm. Ask yourself whether the desire to avoid interpersonal conflict or confrontation motivates your silence.
3. Prioritize the psychological safety of the person of color in conversations about difference.
Remember that any cross-racial conversation about racism is most unsafe for the person of color in the room who has learned to protect the feelings of others to keep things comfortable.