In the Fall of last year, the hashtag #whatdoctorslooklike emerged following an incident that took place on a Delta Airlines flight. A flight attendant was seeking medical help for a passenger, and she refused help from an African-American woman out of sheer disbelief that she was a doctor.
With Black women today making up just 2.5% of doctors—despite Blacks making up slightly more than 13% of the population—it’s almost, but not quite so easy to see how the flight attendant reached such a state of confusion. African-American women serve an important role in the medical community, one that Black Women in Medicine, which premieres tonight at 6pm EST on the WORLD Channel, explores in great detail.
Black Women in Medicine follows several African-American female doctors—both newly minted residents and veterans—as they journey from med school to doctordom in their respective fields. The film begins on “match day,” which occurs every year on the third Friday in March. It’s the day when med students find out where they will perform their residency. From there, we learn what has inspired these young women to become doctors before we are taken back to the Civil Rights era and learn what it was like for the previous generation of veteran doctors who paved the way for the new grads.
Perhaps the most intriguing subject of the documentary is Dr. Claudia L. Thomas, the first Black orthopedic surgeon. Claudia, a self-described activist, is a rebel with an Afro, whose biggest stumbling block toward becoming a doctor was race. Claudia attended John Hopkins University in 1971 shortly after integration, and believes the school was “not quite ready for integration.” She earned a reputation for being outspoken, often chastising White men in their 20’s for referring to elderly Black male patients as “boy.”
“I got tagged as seeing a racist behind every tree,” she said. “There was a racist behind every tree.”
A skeptic of the term “post-racial America,” Dr. Thomas believes that “those who did not go through this change and go through the sixties, go through the Civil Rights era, do not have the perspective on what we had to go through.”
“There’s nothing post racial in this country; it’s the first thing they see when they look at you.”
Another subject of the film is Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, the first African-American woman to become a medical school dean. She also highlights the differences in the experiences of the older generation from the new.
“The younger students, they aren’t as aware of the barriers, they aren’t so visible as in the past.”
In the documentary, Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee also details the importance of Black women being represented in medical schools and the important role Affirmative Action played in ensuring medical schools made diversity a priority. Affirmative Action, which unfortunately had many detractors, made it a rule that a quota had to be met, ensuring African-Americans were accepted into medical schools across the nation in adequate numbers. Despite some setbacks, the policy was successful and doors were opened for many Blacks to become doctors. Affirmative Action was important because it afforded patients the ability to find doctors who look like them.
“We know diversity has a huge influence on the kind of care we receive, the quality of care. Patients prefer to have doctors who look like them. There’s a level of trust,” Dr. Aletha Maybank states in the documentary.
In the film, the women featured ponder ways to increase the percentage of African-American female doctors, most agreeing that mentorship plays a huge role.
“We changed history by not giving up the struggle. Black women have come this far and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. We still have to push the envelope. We still have to train another generation of young black girls” says Darlene Clark Hine, PHD.
Black Women in Medicine is a testament that African-American women can do anything they put their minds to. The women in the film were not without their struggles. Black resilience is highlighted time and again in the film, thanks to writer and producer Crystal R. Emery.
Emery believes that “Black Women in Medicine helps broaden one’s idea of who a ‘doctor’” is and what they can accomplish.” No stranger to doctors herself, Crystal, a quadriplegic diagnosed with a rare muscular disease, became paralyzed in 1999. Despite her diagnosis, she continues to produce socially conscious content for audiences to enjoy. Her life’s work is meant to engage the public through art, creativity and literacy, and she is an inspiration in her own right.
“Black Women in Medicine” premieres tonight on the WORLD Channel a public access network dedicated to content by and about diverse communities. You can also stream the documentary online at www.worldchannel.org.