Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Sexism & Racism: The Truth About What We See

Before I go to work, I always pull my hair back – usually in a bun.  I smash my already smallish breasts with a sports bra under a unisex uniform.  I want to minimize my “tells” – the things others see to consciously or unconsciously justify treating me differently.

My male colleagues wear the exact same scrubs I do, but their indecision is less likely to be perceived as a lack of confidence.  Their orders and competence are less likely to be questioned.  They are expected to listen less and are perceived as less rude when they interrupt.

I’m not aiming for your pityI am targeting your acknowledgement that sexism is real

I have a female physician friend who got a letter from a lawyer because a former patient claimed she was billed for seeing a doctor, but never saw a doctor.  The patient saw a doctor (my friend), she just didn’t see a doctor.

This past week I had an EMT call me “Ms.” Instead of Dr. while asking me to sign an order sheet.  He knew I was a doctor before he addressed me as “Ms.” because only doctors can sign these orders.

“Dr.,” I corrected lightly. (He can call me by my first name for all I care, but if he’s going to use a title at work, it might as well be the right one.)

“Oh, yes, ‘Dr.’” he said.  It was a slip, a sexist one, but a simple mistake.  Then he added,

“You see, I was taught to respect ladies.” 

Rather than acknowledge his sexism, he wrapped up in “southern values.”

Bless his heart.

He wouldn’t have mistakenly called a male physician colleague “Mr.” and told him he meant it out of respect.  His denial grated worse than the original slip.  He was telling me,

“You mistook me, darlin’, I’m not a sexist, I’m a gentleman.”

Denying sexism is like denying that we see people as male or female.  What a silly idea, right?

And yet, people still say, “I don’t see color.”  People claim race doesn’t matter – that racism isn’t real – that it doesn’t have real advantages or consequences.

In the wake of every racially charged event, I have watched my facebook feed fill with pronouncements that if everyone just acted respectfully and didn’t break the law, then everything would be fine.  That is crazymaking.  It’s saying to the people who are upset,

“Your problem is you’re imagining the problem.” 

This kind of response is the cowardly one.  It’s the one that doesn’t want to see a problem.  It minimizes real issues.  Real racism.  Real righteous anger, hurt, and dismay.

Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist Billy Graham, recently posted the following message on Facebook:

“Listen up—Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience…It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY…Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided.”

Hundreds of thousands of people “liked” that post.  A group of progressive church leaders responded with a letter that included these words:

“Your instructions oversimplified a complex and critical problem facing the nation and minimized the testimonies and wisdom of people of color and experts of every hue…The fact that you identify a widely acknowledged social injustice as “simple” reveals your lack of empathy and understanding of the depth of sin that some in the body have suffered under the weight of our broken justice system.”

A few weeks later, after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation, Will Stack took a video of himself in his car describing his respectful interaction that ended in him being let go with just a warning. Mr. Stack is black. His message was, “not all police interactions are bad.” His message was not, “injustice doesn’t exist.” But people re-posted and re-posted using his testimony to minimize the role of race in recent tragedies. Their posts said,

“Look at this! This guy is black and he didn’t get shot when he got pulled over! Race doesn’t matter!”    

Did you know women are less likely to get tickets for driving violations than men? It’s true. I’ve gotten a ticket less than half the times I’ve been pulled over and I’m a horrible driver. Police officers can see my gender. Sexism exists in our justice system and I have benefited from it.

About a year ago, I was introduced to the voice of Jen Hatmaker and stumbled on her blog post “Dear Trayvon’s Mom.”  She wrote:

“I nonchalantly enjoyed my white privileges my entire adult life, one of those people who said ‘racism is dying’ and ‘things are different now’ and ‘we’re colorblind’ and casual ignorance like that. I gushed and over-loved any black people in my life, of which there were very few; none in a real relationship with me that wasn’t exaggerated and a little contrived and over-zealous. 

That’s honesty. Owning up to being oblivious, to gushing, to being contrived.

Jen’s response is the courageous one. The one that tries to look inside oneself and see the less-acceptable parts.

The truth is, I see color. I see it everywhere. I am well aware that my Facebook friend list is overwhelmingly white. I see my own fear of being perceived as a racist. I feel (more than see) the parts of me that are racist.

I have irrational fears fueled by years of media propaganda about black male violence and crime.  This satirical video shines the light on how reporting can drive perception.

When I tell you about the sexism I have experienced at work or the sexism inherent in getting pulled over twice in a month for running a red light and not getting a ticket either time – your response should never be “you’re imagining it” or “sexism isn’t real.”  Your denial doesn’t change my experience, but it does try to silence my voice.

I want to be clear:

Sexism is real

Racism is real.

The only way to combat prejudice is to turn the lights on in the basements of our hearts. We have evolved enough to know prejudice is wrong and shame makes us want to hide it. To pretend it isn’t real. In the words of the ever-wise, Dr. Brené Brown:

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

The first step toward change is always seeing the need for it.  We need to SEE the bias we’ve hidden. Change doesn’t begin “out there.” It begins with us. It begins in our individual hearts. It begins with our individual bravery.

I am including a link to a test that is designed to unmask unconscious bias. It’s a study out of Harvard called “Project Implicit.” My husband and I have both taken it with different results. Try it. If your result reveals bias, don’t discount it.

Do the brave thing. See it. And then (and only then) can you try to change it. 

 

Photo Credit:  flikr Vladimer Shioshvili (photo cropped/lens edge smoothed/cross-process applied) – creative commons license

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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6 Comments

  1. Christen Milham Rodrigue

    Yes!!! Powerful and true!! Thank you for sharing your perspective!!

  2. Mari

    Thank you for this thoughtful and beautifully written post. The same type of sexism is also present in the legal field. Thankfully, I know a lot of great role model female attorneys who are very capable and who have both successful careers and families.

  3. Cari Sue

    My heart is full…that was awesome! So many sad truths…things I will reflect on and hopefully grow from in the future. THANKS! Again, I LOVE YOUR WRITING!

  4. Kassi

    I have been waiting for this subject. You, as all of us, are all born with zero influence in how God is going to put our outside parts together. You also were born with an inside, unstoppable desire for medicine (the shunt in Barbie!) at a very young age.
    You happen to be a brilliant doctor. Medical school is not for sissies! Lots of people have the brains, but not the heart to stick it out all those years, until you actually become a medical doctor. And bravo for you and all the women who manage to stick to their dreams!
    But also…I’m not flattering you, it’s just the way God put you together…you fit one of the most wide spread stereotypes in this country. You are tall, slender, blonde (not just blonde, but Christy Brinkley full out perfect hair) and with a beautiful blue eyed face to match. You could have just as easily become a cover girl for Vogue Magazine.
    But you kept your dream going. And you fulfilled it. Every single step.I think it is difficult for female doctors in general to gain the same respect as men, but as a beautiful blonde, it must be more of a challenge. This is not you saying, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” Far from it. You are trying to educate us to get past our own versions of reality…cause we all come with pre-conceived realities and prejudices. And we are all often very wrong.
    I have wondered often how many insulting, derogatory comments you get on a daily basis. Or If men make ‘advances’ or inappropriate comments, assuming much too much. Many people are probably meant to flatter, but I know it must feel incredibly dehumanizing.
    I laughed and cried as you told of your friend whose patient complained about their bill because they didn’t ‘see a doctor….because she didn’t match what society thinks a doctor should look like.
    Joe has a delightful uncle, who was born in Italy. His family spent a year trying to get him to Mayo Clinic for surgery. They finally got the appointment, got this beloved stubborn old man to the appointment, only to discover his surgeon was A Woman AND an Italian Woman at that! He promptly gathered his things as his completely humiliated and exhausted family tried in vain to talk some sense into him. Did not happen. They drove back to Michigan in a very uncomfortable silence. I am positive it never occurred to him that his actions were profoundly humiliating and infuriating for the surgeon.
    We’ve got a long way to go. But again, your magical words continue to instruct us, delight us, and keep us looking forward.
    Thank you again, Kristin. And yes, it has to be Doctor Ott. Don’t let them patronize you.

  5. Laura Goetsch

    AMEN. Well said.

  6. Lola Harmon-Ramsey

    Great read. Over the last month or so I have been asked a number of times if I work outside of the home. Nobody has ever asked my husband if he worked outside of our home yet we own our small business together and you will often find me doing the “heavy lifting” along side of him. We also work pretty well together taking care of our home and children. I was getting really upset by it and wondering where those questions were coming from and why there were mostly from women! If I was a SAHM that is a full time job too so what is it anyones business but it was really bothering me how sexist it seemed. I guess I’m over it now but I still get asked on a weekly basis and need to find a better answer. It feels like I have to work twice as hard to establish myself in my career.

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