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What does a black doctor look like? They’re showing us with new hashtag

Delta Airlines incident shows implicit bias could cost lives

In the last month, not one, but two black female doctors have allegedly been treated poorly by Delta Airlines flight attendants. Their offense? They attempted to offer assistance to a fellow passenger who had become ill in-flight. Both incidents speak to the problem of implicit bias against black professionals of all stripes and gave birth to the hashtags #WhatDoctorsLookLike and #WhatADoctorLooksLike.

Scores of black female physicians took to social media posting their pictures showing that, yes, they do exist, and they’re just as qualified as their nonblack colleagues. The first surgeon general nominated by President Barack Obama was Dr. Regina Benjamin, a black woman.

Dr. Tamika Cross, a fourth-year resident at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, was on a flight heading home from Detroit when she heard a female passenger yelling for help for her husband, who had become unresponsive. A flight attendant asked if there were any medical professionals aboard the plane and Cross raised her hand. According to Cross’ Facebook post, the flight attendant said, “oh no sweetie put ur (sic) hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.”

A call then went out on the plane’s public address system for medical professionals to ring their call button to identify themselves. Cross did so, and was both questioned about her practice and asked to produce credentials. Meanwhile, the gentleman in distress had still had not received aid. An older white male doctor also identified himself and was asked to assist the passenger instead of Cross, even though the male doctor had produced no credentials. Perhaps realizing how poorly Cross had been treated, the flight attendant later apologized to her and offered her SkyMiles.

Dr. Ashley Denmark, a second-year resident in family medicine, had a similar experience aboard a Delta Airlines flight. A call went out over the public address system for medical professionals. Denmark reported to the front of the plane and offered her assistance. When questioned if she was a doctor, Denmark states on her website that she offered to show her hospital badge as credentials. Instead of escorting Denmark to the passenger in distress, the flight attendant told her to return to her seat because two white nurses had identified themselves first.

Fortunately, it appears that both of the passengers’ medical issues were non-life-threatening. But what if they were not? In many medical emergencies such as choking or a heart attack, the first few minutes are not only crucial but may mean the difference between life and death. If someone needs a tracheotomy or CPR, or even a proper diagnosis, there is no time to debate whether someone is really a doctor because they don’t “look like a doctor,” whatever that means.

In both of these cases, it appears that black women were shunned because of their race and were asked to substantiate their credentials. In essence, it is akin to them being asked to “show their papers,” to prove that they were qualified to handle a precarious situation. This leads to the larger question of what does a doctor look like. Why does one assume that a black woman isn’t a doctor when she identifies as one?

Why would these women pretend they were something that they were not, and open themselves up to lawsuits, in front of dozens of witnesses? Hasn’t producer Shonda Rhimes alone put all of this to rest with Grey’s Anatomy, a TV show that portrays an inclusive medical staff at all levels of experience? I ask this jokingly, but there is no shortage of examples of black female doctors, in popular culture and otherwise, to question whether they exist in 2016.









Even the American Medical Association chimed in on the issue.


Delta Airlines has released a statement indicating it is investigating the incident regarding Cross. What’s interesting is that Delta Airlines is headquartered in Atlanta, which has a thriving community of upwardly mobile black professionals. One would think that if any corporation would have sensitivities to issues of diversity, it would be Delta. But the real problem is implicit bias. Simply put, it is nothing overt, but rather the unconscious views that we have about someone or a group of people, which then results in discrimination or bigotry.

The lack of sensitivity shown by these Delta Airlines flight attendants could lead to a chilling effect on other doctors coming forward. Why deal with the humiliation and discrimination by volunteering to help, only to be passed over by a flight attendant? This could put ill passengers at risk in the future. At the very least, Delta should require that their flight attendants participate in sensitivity training to ensure that there are no further incidents like these.