The top five blunders white people make when talking to their brown doctor

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice not to point out the racist phrases addressed to me. I grew up and did my medical training in Canada, I love my job and I feel Canadian to my core. I’ve practised family medicine as a Mauritian-Canadian physician for 20 years. I’ve worked in three provinces, and #racism is a fact of life for many #racializedCanadians. Aside from a few horror stories that I will spare you, I’ve been relatively unscathed thanks to my sense of humour, particularly my sarcastic inner dialogue that gets me through the day (while I smile till my cheeks hurt). I usually choose to let things go, to make sure patients always felt comfortable and happy when they left my consulting office. But I wish some people would think twice before they speak. Here are the top five blunders I hear on the job.

1. “Where did you do your training?”

I am so tempted to reply, “Would you ask a white doctor that question?” But I answer honestly: UBC, University of Calgary and McGill University.

But what would happen if I answered that I went to university in Africa, the Caribbean or Mumbai? Would you walk out of the room, disgusted because you want a North American-trained physician to take care of your needs?

I am sitting here in this office ready to help you and that means I have a license to practice medicine in British Columbia. If the College of Physicians and Surgeons has vetted me, can’t you trust that? If you must ask that question, and it’s certainly your right, I would recommend that it shouldn’t be the second sentence out of your mouth when I walk in the door. Let’s have our consultation together, I can listen and offer the help you need, and if you would like to know where I trained, the question will fly better toward the end of our visit.

2. “I saw you before at that other clinic up the hill.”

In my small town, there are two dark-complexioned female physicians of Indian heritage: myself, and a woman with a lovely English accent as a stark distinguishing feature. There is also an Iranian #physician with light skin. Apparently all three ethnic female docs are the same person, as we are constantly being mistaken for each other, despite having completely different faces and physiques. Please try to see past skin colour and actually take note of the features of the person you are looking at, the physiognomy, if you will.

It’s also very awkward when I reply, “I’ve never worked at that clinic,” and you say, “I’m sure it was you.” So, am I lying? What’s my game? I gave you an out. Take it. Just say, “My mistake.”

3. “Are you related to…?”

No. Just stop. You are not going to bring up the Indian family who recently bought the restaurant in town and yes I know they serve the best curry, but no, not all brown people in this town are related. Just like not all white people in this town are related. I don’t know Harjan the guy you play hockey with on Saturday nights. Yes, I’m absolutely sure I don’t know him. Please don’t start describing him.

4. “Your English is really good.”

My standard response to this dubious compliment is: “Thanks. Your English is good too.”

Can’t believe this happens in our country? Believe it. I was born in Scotland, and I’ve lived in Canada since I was four. English is my first language, French is my second language and I actually don’t know any Indian languages. I do however find it really cute when you put your hands together and greet me with Namaste. I learned that from my yoga videos too. Please stop assuming that you know who people are, where they’ve been or what they know based on the colour of their skin.

5. “How long have you been in this country?”

Actually, I just climbed out of a shipping container two weeks ago. Why are you asking me this? How is it relevant to your hemorrhoids? Is it small talk? It’s not the kind of small talk you would engage in with a white person. I know that.

The deplorable murder of #GeorgeFloyd by a Minnesota policeman sparked protests across the world that have brought the issue of racism into the limelight and opened up fresh conversations about an age-old topic. The protests are about police brutality toward Black-Americans and in Canada, toward #BlackCanadians, Indigenous peoples and other racialized Canadians.

Racism is as much an issue in Canada as it is in the States, it just presents differently here. It’s softer, more polite and challenges are met with open palms and wide-eyed protestations, “Oh, that’s not what I meant.” Racism is certainly not unique to Caucasian people, either – it’s a disease every group needs to become aware of and treat with education and awareness.

All Canadians have a role to play in reaching a new understanding, and it’s not just about teaching the new generation to think differently. It’s about every generation learning to speak and act mindfully, accept that we make mistakes, forgive each other and try again. Don’t tell me that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. The human mind and spirit is capable of transformation at every stage of life. In my practice, I will endeavour to find ways to talk to patients about these issues, in a kind and gentle way. I promise to try really hard to keep my sarcastic inner dialogue to myself.





Dr. Mandy Ruthnum lives in Comox, B.C.

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