Thursday, November 29, 2012

On the lesson learned by finding a doctor on the Internet.

I starting seeing Dr. C a year ago when I moved to Chicago. He was the first doctor on my insurance's online list of providers in downtown Chicago. He went to Harvard and received strong reviews and many awards. The first time I went to see Dr. C, I was forced to confront my own, well, not racism and sexism exactly, but what I'd call racial and gender expectations. Upon my arrival, it didn't surprise me in the least that the curvy, black woman working the front desk was, well, a curvy, black woman. It wasn't until an elderly, black Dr. C came into the waiting area that I noticed quite suddenly that I was the by far the youngest and the only white woman in waiting room which was adorned with paintings of black mothers and children. It was the tiniest of reactions, a small surprise, a reversal of a subconscious expectation I didn't know I had.

When I think of the word "doctor," a middle-aged white man in a lab coat and plaid pants comes to mind, even though surely throughout my life I've had male and female doctors of different races. My subconscious has little more imagination than a 1950's children's book about careers (which is strange, since knitter/fake patient/nanny/actress was never featured in such a book.) Understand, I don't care what race my doctor is, but I didn't expect my doctor to be black. I noticed it. So what does an experience like this mean? In Dr. C's office ( and in many neighborhoods in the still very segregated Chicago), my age and race place me in the minority. I imagine when Dr. C started practicing medicine years ago many white women would not be treated by a black gynecologist, Harvard degree or no Harvard degree.  As the years have gone on, his patients have aged with him, except for those of us new ones who wander in confusedly off the street because we found his name on the Internet.

While I could list all the reasons why I'm not racist to make myself feel better, it seems more productive to admit I found an inadvertent flaw in my social constructions of race. We shouldn't be afraid to start a dialogue with ourselves about our racial expectations or biases. How else can we confront, challenge and seek to change them? It is 2012 and this country has not only elected, but reelected Barack Obama as president.  When I think of the word "president," I see a black man in my mind's eye.  But I've never met Barack Obama. I do meet doctors, teachers, engineers, artists, scientists, lawyers, human resources managers,* business owners and psychologists. And these people are not all white or men. They do not default to white or young or male or straight, for that matter. 

When my daughter thinks of the word "president," I hope she can see a woman's face. I'd also like her not be surprised when her doctor is elderly, a woman, black, Hispanic, or gay. She'll learn that from me, that's a promise. 

*For the record, thanks to Miss Tina Le, HR managers will always be Vietnamese in my mind.


  1. Plaid pants...I know exactly which doctor you're talking about.

  2. Very insightful - I bump up against this myself, and it discomfits me. Kudos to being honest and brave enough to admit it!