A Black Male Medical Student’s Letter to the Field of Neurosurgery.
I would first and foremost like to pay tribute to my brothers Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, sister Breonna Taylor, and all of those who have lost their lives to injustice and racism. May your souls rest in peace and in power. May justice be served rightfully and swiftly for your murders.
To a field I deeply respect and for which I have an immense passion, I am writing this letter in an attempt to express the hurt and frustrations of a Black medical student with dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. My words may not be able to fully illustrate the magnitude of the burdens that Black medical students face in America; nevertheless, I hope that you will be moved to learn more. Although I write this with a heavy heart, I am also hopeful for the changes that can be made when leaders, such as neurosurgeons, come together against injustice and racism.
This journey to medical school and neurosurgery has been challenging, to say the least. In addition to the normal stressors of becoming a physician, Black students must also face additional fears, doubts, anxieties, and stereotype threats. In the United States this year, there are 7.3% of Black students currently enrolled in medical school, and of those, only 2.9% are males.
A large reason for this disparity is due to the systemic racism that is engraved in our school and medical systems. Health disparities plague Black communities, as illustrated by the devastations caused to these communities by the Covid-19 pandemic. Add to that constantly reading about Black men losing their lives - quite frankly just for being Black - at the hands of those who are sworn to protect us, and then being blamed when communities around the nation attempt to demand justice on our behalf. Balancing all of this is overwhelming and exhausting.
I have reached a level of education that not many people have the opportunity to achieve here in America, yet I still live in constant fear for my life every single day when I walk out the door. I put on my white coat to see a patient, but still have the fear that they may refuse my care or mistake me for being lesser than. When I take off my white coat and dare to walk down the street in a sweat shirt or jogging shorts, I am assumed dangerous and a threat to those around me. When I open up my mouth to speak, I fear that I will be misunderstood or simply not heard by my professors and colleagues. When I get pulled over for a routine traffic stop, my stomach drops to the ground, my heart beats out of my chest and I hope that they will believe me when I say that I am a medical student; I pray that I will leave the situation unharmed.
When I see a Black male neurosurgeon, I assume that he is the rare exception. Although I am excited to see the representation, I second-guess if I also have what it takes to succeed at becoming a neurosurgeon as a Black man. The reality is that we are all the rare exception and indeed have what it takes to achieve our greatest potential. In order for other Black men in future generations to view themselves as such, we need to increase the number of Black and Brown medical students and neurosurgeons in this country.
Please do not be confused in thinking that the racial disparities and inequalities seen within medical education and our health care system are separate from the racially incited murders and police brutality. It is not separate from our inequitable justice system. It is all the same. Systemic racism is racism.
So in light of this, I now pose a question to you - what am I supposed to do?
How do I take the time and space needed to process what these things mean to my family and me? Should I halt my board studying, and allow myself to fall further behind my peers? Do I take a pause on my research endeavors and sacrifice possible publications and experiences? Do I take a break from social media and the leadership roles I have formed on these platforms? Should I take a pause from pursuing my purpose and passion of becoming a neurosurgeon?
The answer to myself is no, I simply cannot. I have to keep going. I have to make it. I have to become a neurosurgeon.
I have to become a neurosurgeon because my community and specifically other Black men are depending on me to achieve my goals. As a neurosurgeon and Public Health leader, I will be able to effect change systemically. As a neurosurgeon and leader in medicine, YOU can effect change systematically. It is pivotal that we take the lead on this together as a specialty. Others will follow! This is necessary so that in the future when a cop sees a Black man, they see a possible neurosurgeon and do not automatically see a criminal.
As an ally, there are many things you can do to take an active stand against racism. The first is to examine your own personal biases. Next, talk about these issues with your colleagues, friends and family. Challenge yourself to come up with at least 3 tangible ways that you can make a stand for the Black community.
Other ways that you can help:
1. Say something
Speak up when you see injustice happening. Defend those that don’t have the same power and privilege that you hold.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Actively educate yourself
Educate yourself on the history of racism in the U.S. and how it continues to impact Black and Brown communities. Below are some examples of material I suggest.
• When They See Us (Movie) - Netflix
• The Hate You Give (Movie) - Hulu, Amazon
• Just Mercy (Movie) - Apple, Amazon
• 13th Documentary - Netflix
• LA 92 Documentary - Netflix
• Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
• White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, PhD
• White Rage by Carol Anderson
• Black Man In a White Coat: A Doctors Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy, MD
• The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
• How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram Kendi
3. Provide dedicated support
Support black medical students in neurosurgery through mentorship initiatives, pipeline programs, and research opportunities.
I love the field of neurosurgery. It is my dream that this great field will be one that takes a stand against racism and all forms of injustice.
Thank you for your time.
Alvin C. Onyewuenyi, MPH
Brain & Spine Report is a product of the Brain and Spine Group, Inc. and the statements made in this publication are the authors’ and do not imply endorsement by any other group. The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.
Comments are closed.
Brain and Spine Group, Inc.