Like many Black surgeons – and indeed, many Black professionals both within and outside of healthcare – I typically find myself inundated with invitations every year to speak in the run-up to February, which was first celebrated as Black History Month in 1969 and formally recognized in 1976 by President Gerald Ford as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations. We are invited by colleagues and deans and student groups and pharmaceutical companies to come and speak about our experience as Black people in predominantly White spaces and to perhaps provide some insight as to how the host institutions can do a better job at getting more people like us – the “good” Black people – to integrate these spaces.
February 2021 was an unusually busy Black History Month for me and many Black surgeons, with many of us buoyed by hope for the first time in years. After all, the first woman – who also happened to be Black and Asian – had been elected Vice President of the United States, our nation was under the leadership of a President who professed a message of unity and kindness, and the first COVID-19 vaccines had been administered. Later that year, we saw the first Black women appointed as chairs of surgery departments in the United States and another assume the position of Executive Director of the American College of Surgeons. But the nation was also grappling with unsavory truths revealed by the racial and ethnic disparities in morbidity and mortality throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Donald Trump’s false narrative of electoral fraud, and the widespread protests pitting those who believe Black Lives Matter against those who do not.
February 2022 felt…different. Many of us Black professionals – who had provided free or cheap Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) labor for our own institutions and to many other groups over the course of many months – were requesting speaker fees for our efforts, only to find our invitations reconsidered and rescinded. Bans on critical race theory – transmogrified into a child-snatching, brain-washing theoretical threat by right-wing pundits and parents – exemplified the “Blacklash” that had begun in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, culminated in the election of his successor, and continues today. With baited breath, we awaited President Biden’s announcement of the Supreme Court Nominee to replace Justice Breyer, and while we cheered his selection of the eminently qualified Ketanji Brown Jackson (who happens to be married to a surgeon), we also steeled ourselves for the racist vitriol that would inevitably be directed at her person, her qualifications, and her family. We watched with horror as Africans and other foreigners – largely students pursuing careers in healthcare – were dehumanized and discriminated against as they attempted to flee the escalating conflict in Ukraine. And finally, we watched the chair of psychiatry at a prominent medical center call a Black woman “a freak of nature” on social media. Yes, he was removed from leadership, but he still had his defenders among purported DEI allies, making us question just how much sincerity lay behind all of the DEI sessions and initiatives our institutions had had us lead.
That is all to say that this Black History Month was not the joyous celebration we dared hope it might be….and your Black colleagues and friends and patients are not okay. We continue to bear the disproportionate burden of DEI work in an increasingly hostile space (see “Blacklash” above). Despite widespread availability of the vaccine, uptake among Black and Brown people has stalled, especially among children, and we continue to battle vaccine skepticism in our communities and even in our families, born of a mistrust that is both justified and maddening. This is not to say we are without hope, but that is to say we are without reserve; we are short on rest and have had little occasion to refuel. We have been given opportunities to lead, but at perilous moments and in challenging circumstances where the potential to fail is high. We are strong but we are weary…even more so than many in healthcare.
So I ask you, dear readers, in the next 11 months until Black History Month 2023 to reconsider what allyship looks like for the Black surgeons you know. It does not look like invitations to give yet another talk for free or to mentor yet another eager trainee. It is not suddenly applying for disparities research funding when you have never worked in that space and do not have a URIM expert as co-*PI*; and no, it is not having a perfunctory URIM co-investigator to lend your project legitimacy. Allyship is about providing opportunity AND support, ceding authority AND power in the context of respect and an equal opportunity to compete. We don’t want handouts, but we do appreciate helping hands extended with sincerity and without caveats. In short, I ask that you work on becoming the ally of OUR dreams…and not of your own. We shall see what February 2023 brings.