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WHAT? An “unsatisfactory” in professionalism? How is that possible??!! I stared at my grade in disbelief. I was used to getting good grades my whole life. Valedictorian in high-school, summa cum laude in college, and then average to slightly above average grades during my first two years of medical school (yup, it was hard). A grade that I had never seen before, however, was a fail … or “unsatisfactory”.
For context, it was my second year of medical school and I had just finished a rotation (at my school we took a rotation called “practicum” early on to prepare us for clinical work in the future). We were graded based on the evaluations of doctors that we worked with, which made grading into a subjective art. Essentially, a doctors’ opinion of you could make or break your grade, and greatly affect your future career in medicine for better or for worse.
There must have been a mistake. We were graded on multiple categories such as clinical skills, medical knowledge, communication, and professionalism, among others. I noticed that I had been given much higher grades in the other categories, as well as a short paragraph explaining why I had done well. For professionalism (the category that had been deemed “unsatisfactory”), there were no comments. A failing grade, and no explanation. I mean… sureeeee, I was the kind of medical student to secretly sneak away and twerk in front of a bathroom mirror to feel better when I was stressed, but I was always the epitome of poise and good behavior when it counted. I came to my rotation on time every day, I communicated well with the team, and I didn’t post ratchet photos on social media. That grade MUST have been a mistake.
So, I did what any other anxious student would do: I went to talk to the attending who had given me the grade. To my dismay, she confirmed that the grade was correct.
“You were very nice to everyone, Oyetewa, and the whole team and the patients loved you. It’s just…” She paused and looked at my hair. “Uhm. Your hair is very unprofessional.”
I almost choked. “ExCUSE me?”
“I mean… I understand everyone wants to be edgy these days, but I wish you would wash it, maybe. So it could be…” she gestured up and down repeatedly with both hands.
My eyes bulged. “Straight?!” I asked incredulously.
“Yes exactly! It would look much better if you just washed it and wore it that way. Instead, you obviously spend a lot of time curling your hair and making it big. You should instead spend that time studying. Medicine is hard, and I’m trying to prepare you for your career.”
“So you think my hair grows straight? Like… you think that if I were to wash it, it would become straight?”
“Exactly,” she said with relief in her voice. “I knew you would understand.”
“No, I don’t understand. I DO wash my hair. And when I wash it, it looks like this,” I pointed to my head, trying to keep the anger from my voice. “I don’t spend a lot of time on it to make it look like this, this is how it grows. In fact, it takes hours to straighten my hair and then even more time and effort to keep it straight.”
She looked uncomfortable. “I’m not trying to offend you, I’m trying to help you. Your hair didn’t look professional during this rotation, and it was very large.”
“I…” I started to respond to her again, but stopped. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew that if I continued to talk, I might actually do something unprofessional. Instead, I gave her a half smile, thanked her for her time, and left. Immediately, I went to the office of student’s affairs at my medical school, who took her grade off my record, and also removed her from having access to or working with medical students in the future.
I couldn’t believe it. This woman was willing to ruin my grade… in MEDICAL SCHOOL… because of the hair that God blessed me with. I started to wonder what other people thought about my hair. Truth be told, it even made me a bit insecure about my hair in professional settings. Did other doctors also think similarly? I was fortunate to have a group of friends in medical school who reminded me how crazy this attending had to be to think such things.
So… here’s the scoop on my hair, for those who want to know. Like most other black women, my hair is not naturally straight. I actually have multiple textures that make up my hair, ranging from coils to tight curls. This means that without being manipulated with multiple hair products or heat styling tools, my hair is big. Beautifully so. For the majority of medical school, I wore my hair in its naturally curly state, but occasionally straightened or wore it in braids when I wanted to switch things up. Each time I changed my hairstyle, classmates and attendings alike got confused, sometimes not even recognizing me. LOL. Special Note: my face remains the same even when my hair changes.
A few years later, I found myself completing a research project with another attending, Dr. L, that was not affiliated with my medical school. I wore my hair naturally for the majority of the time that we worked together. It just so happened that I straightened it one day that we were having an interview dinner for other medical students who were interested in completing research within Dr. L’s program.
“OH MY GOODNESS, OYETEWA!” She exclaimed with delight when she saw me at the dinner table. “You look GORGEOUS! I love your hair, please never wear it the other way again!”
I looked around the table, and noticed an applicant sitting across from me. She happened to be another black girl with natural hair. I saw a look of anxiety flash across her eyes as she listened to Dr. L’s backhanded praise.
After dinner, the applicant approached me and asked, “Did I make a mistake by wearing my hair naturally to this interview? Should I have straightened my hair? Oh man, I’m definitely not going to get the research position!”
It broke my heart that she felt that way. I tried my best to reassure her, and then immediately scheduled a meeting with Dr. L to tell her how inappropriate her hair comment was in front of an applicant.
We met a week later, after interviews were complete. I told Dr. L about my interaction with the applicant and that I felt her comment to me was inappropriate. She responded by saying that she had only been complimenting me, and that the truth was, my hair looked better when it was straight.
“Imagine if you were a patient, sick and scared in a hospital bed. You would be terrified if the doctor came in looking like that,” she said.
“I beg your pardon,” I choked. “Looking like what?”
“Well you know,” she fidgeted. “Your hair is typically so WILD and CRAZY. That could be jarring for a patient.”
“Well, Dr. L, to be honest, if patients are scared of hair like mine, I am doing them a service by wearing my hair this way more often. This is the way many black women’s hair looks naturally. They will need to get used to it.”
“Getting used to it is one thing, but there is still a standard for professionalism. I would also comment if a man wore his hair in a “man-bun”, or if a girl dyed her hair bright blue. Those would also be unprofessional hairstyles.”
“Those two examples are of people putting their natural hair into a style that is unprofessional. When a black woman wears her natural hair “down”, it is the same style you have now.” I gestured towards her dark blonde hair, which lay straight down past her shoulders. “The texture of a black woman’s hair simply makes that same style look bigger.”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” she said, exasperated. “There are simply standards. People need to live up to them in our profession.”
“Those are Eurocentric standards,” I said, getting frustrated. “As our field moves towards increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine, the standards of professionalism that are steeped in racism or Eurocentricity will need to change.”
We went back and forth for another 20 minutes. By the end of our meeting, she concluded, “Well, I guess I’ve learned my lesson. It’s inappropriate to comment on people’s hair. I’ll be keeping my thoughts to myself from now on.”
I sighed. She had completely missed the point. The ideal was not for her to keep her thoughts to herself, but to challenge her thoughts. As a woman who was the gatekeeper for multiple medical students applying to her research program on a regular basis, she was completely unaware that her subconscious bias could very easily lead to the exclusion of worthy candidates simply based on the texture of their hair. I had just so happened to have straight hair when I interviewed with her previously. I wondered if I would have been accepted if my hair had not been straight at the time.
By the way, the applicant that was worried did not get the research position. I guess we’ll never know if it was because she wasn’t a strong enough applicant, or because her hair wasn’t straight enough.
I have had numerous other negative experiences relating to my hair and my path training to be a physician, but the two I shared were the funniest (as in… not funny at all, actually quite egregious, let’s all cry in unison…). As a medical community, we still have a long way to go when it comes to tackling unconscious bias and the inevitable discriminatory practices that are promoted as a result. My personal experiences make that fact all-too-clear.
Until next time,
Oh by the way, here are a few of my QUITE UNPROFESSIONAL hairstyles from medical school… in case you’re in the mood for scary, wild or crazy.