Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry
Art by Ameana Khan, Anaesthetic Registrar
(HLA Scholar 2020-2021)
I was born and grew up in London. My parents are from Nigeria. They moved to and settled in London after getting married, seeking a safer life for the family they wished to start (they grew up during the Civil War).
Occupation and institution
It’s tricky to distinguish whether the challenges I sometimes face are due to gender, race, or a combination of both. I feel fortunate to have entered the profession at a time when societal norms seem to be progressing. I am also eternally grateful for my wonderful parents, whose overriding mantra to us growing up was that we were capable of achieving anything, and only to accept the best.
Whilst I do not recall them ever explicitly declaring that gender or race could act as potential hurdles, I did get a sense that I might need to work harder than others to achieve similar goals.
As an ethnic minority
Whilst often perceived as shy during school, I now realise that I quickly learned from the experiences of the small number of my peers who were also of a minority race, to keep my head down.
As one of three black girls in a class of more than thirty at primary school, I distinctly recall a particular teacher, who (thankfully) was only present on a Wednesday, who made me sit on the floor most lessons. Confused as to why my peers were allowed to speak freely, whereas I was not permitted to whisper a few quiet words to my friend regarding our assignment, and mortified by my Victorian novel-style predicament, the solution, I surmised, was to avoid school on Wednesdays. I would feign illness at the last minute.
My parents, perplexed at the acute onset of ‘tummy aches’, would make the necessary inquiries. But relief – at avoiding grim recipe of the cold, hard, classroom floor, combined with sympathetic looks from my peers, served with the painful glares of my teacher – was my overriding emotion. Until I could discern my malfunction and fix it accordingly, the inquisitions were worth it.
Adult me realises ‘tummy aches’ meant my father couldn’t go to work, risking detracting from my parent’s – already little – income. Striving to be unnoticeable was perhaps a pattern persisted throughout school. Keeping my head down and studying hard, sitting numerous exams to get into good schools, I found myself one of approximately five black girls from Year 7 to Year 13.
We were often confused for one-another by teachers, and (although unspoken) the camaraderie felt strong: we came to know each other through common mistaken identity, leading to a nod, eyebrow raise or knowing smile across the corridors between classes.
I had decided I wanted to be a doctor. Another black girl in my year also planned to apply for medical school. We were both bright students with good grades who had proven ourselves by virtue of arriving at that point. Yet, the discouragement we met, like other things, was the same.
As a Female
These days, the assumption that the often male, often white medical student or (more) junior doctor I am accompanied by is my senior colleague or boss is a common one, and one which on reflection I have now come to expect. Such events are typically followed by a polite correction from me, an uncomfortable ‘oops, sorry!’ from the ill-informed party, awkward smiles all round, and a hasty change of subject.
Whether real or imagined, it sometimes feels as though compared to my counterparts, certain behaviours which may be deemed acceptable for them – sometimes even expected – are not deemed acceptable for me, or others like me. In that regard, it can feel like walking a tightrope.
I hope this feeling will gradually ease, and that attitudes will change as people start challenging their own assumptions. Luckily, until then I really like my job and did a lot of balance beam at school.
Take home message
My message is one of self-belief and self-worth. Believing in myself and my worth are the main factors which have carried me to the other side of tough times. They are traits which I feel can help overcome most barriers, real or perceived. And Sometimes it takes other people who are close to you to remind you of this, so a strong unit of people who love you really helps.
If you have one, great. If you don’t, try and build one. My mum always says that ‘no man is an island’, and it is only as an adult that I am truly beginning to understand what she means. And finally, ‘to thine own self be true’ (courtesy of W. Shakespeare), because it is unlikely that with this mindset you will go far wrong.