By Sophia Hernandez, MD
Many leaders in medicine have identified the white coat as a shield of armor—a “visibility cloak”—the very piece of cloth that provides minority physicians with a privilege they have never experienced before. During a residency interview, I was asked to identify my “privilege.” It didn’t take long before I knew my answer: I was born with a “white coat.” I am blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and identify as a Latina. Yet, others do not often recognize me as such. As the daughter of an immigrant, and one who understands the uniqueness of my position, I see the responsibility in this hyphenated perspective to help spread awareness in hopes of promoting societal change and equity.
“What do you want to do, doctor?” the nurse questioned me, a medical student, ignoring the Latina physician standing in the room. Though I wore my short coat to signify my position, the louder visual was my skin color. I am certain that this is not the first time skin color has defined a person over their qualifications and seeing this firsthand inspired this post. I know that my privilege was simply due to chance. If my genetics were expressed differently, I may look more like my father who has brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes and I could easily be the one whose title is so frequently dismissed. As a woman, I have experienced this dismissal, but understand that as a non-white appearing woman, the frequency of dismissal is all too familiar.
“You are the perfect applicant. If programs take you, they can check the “diversity” box. However, because you look white, you will not make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
Interactions like this reinforce my privilege and shed light on the racism and inequities riddled throughout medicine. The same inequities that deter women and minorities from pursuing surgery, that hinder their advancement when they get there, and that contribute to the leaky pipeline. While these interactions can be hurtful, they are also a call to action and an opportunity to challenge the status quo.
While my intersectionality has made me more attuned to recognizing racism, it has also allowed me to experience the power of representation in medicine. To see the joy, pride, and ease that patients and staff have when they find out I am an Hernández. That an Hernández is going to be a surgeon and that I am part of their treatment team. These moments fuel my desire to be an ally, to speak out against injustices and microaggressions in the hospital, to advocate for communities of color, to mentor students who identify as underrepresented, and to support inclusive organizations such as LMSA, SNMA, and the AWS. It is our responsibility to develop a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive medical environment for all because diversity matters and improves patient care.
Through my personal experiences, I recognize the weight of my privilege and choose to use it to uplift and amplify the voices of others. I challenge you to not only identify your privilege, but to ask yourself, “How can I use my privilege to support those who do not have the same privileges as me?” This is how we will make change.
Sophia Hernandez, MD is an incoming General Surgery resident at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) where she completed her Medical Doctorate. and became the first physician in her family. She will be graduating with her Master’s in Clinical Research with a focus in Data Science this summer from the UCSF Department of Epidemiology and Biostatics. She completed her undergraduate studies in Biological Science at the California State University, Fullerton. Her current academic interests include surgical education, outcomes, and disparities research. She is deeply passionate about mentorship, diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can find her on twitter @SEHernandezz.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.