“Wow, you don’t have an accent at all!”

From Charlottesville to NFL stadiums, conversations and controversies surrounding race relations have seldom felt more heated. These events challenge each of us to consider how racial issues intersect with our daily lives, as OHSU emergency physician Esther Choo notably did in a now-viral tweetstorm about patients refusing care from providers of color.

The reverberations of these seismic disruptions in our social consciousness have, naturally, stirred discussions in our medical school’s classrooms and clinics: how we’ve felt impacted, how our patients have been affected, and how we can root out structurally-ingrained racism in our local environments. And while I can’t claim to understand or have experienced the unique challenges my black or Latino colleagues encounter, these conversations have raised common threads of reflection among my Asian-American peers about the micro-aggressions we navigate while learning medicine in the ‘buckle of the Bible Belt.’

Thankfully, the experience of being verbally confronted or having my services refused on the basis of race isn’t something I’ve had to handle—for such overt hostility, the New England Journal of Medicine has an excellent primer on “Dealing with Racist Patients.” Instead, my brushes with “lowercase-r” racism have been much more subtle, and often unintentional.

“I know a Dr. Patel; he lives in North Carolina? Do you know him?”

Funny; I know a Joe Smith in Edison, New Jersey. Do you know him?

“Where are you from?”

New Jersey.

“No, where are you really from?”

I promise, I am really really from New Jersey.

“Where are your parents or grandparents from?

[Groan.]

“Wow, you don’t have an accent at all, and your English is great!”

Well, I scored 5’s on my AP English exams and an 800 on my SAT verbal, so I’d say I’m pretty decent at English, yes.

“You moved here when you were two months old? That means you’re almost one of us!”

Thank you for letting me know that, though I’ve spent 99.3% of my life here, completed 20 years of schooling here, renounced my Indian citizenship for a U.S. one, and consider myself as deeply immersed in your sports, music, and pop culture as anyone else, that you still think of me as less entitled to the privilege of being “American” than you are.

If you’re not convinced, Buzzfeed has some delightful examples, too.

I came to Tennessee (which is 1.8% Asian) from a university ranked #1 for race-class interaction, and before that, a minority-majority hometown where our high school cafeteria resembled the United Nations. It felt entirely foreign, then, to transition to a setting where most of my patients not only didn’t look like me, but had often lived for decades in rural communities where everyone looked the same, sounded the same, prayed the same, and voted the same. It was a rare experience to feel hyper-aware that I was different, which was only heightened by my patients’ comments and curiosity questions. These bigots, these ignorant rednecks, these deplorables, I fumed internally.

With time, though, as I grew to better understand my patients, my exasperation softened to empathy. Through brief interactions at the bedside, I came to see my patients’ “political incorrectness” not as ill-intent, but inexperience. If you live in McMinnville, Tennessee, you might believe that most towns, like yours, have only one South Asian family, and intuit that these dispersed Desis find and know each other. You might only know of South Asian culture through the pop culture vignettes of Simpsons or Slumdog, so that when you encounter an Indian American medical student, your conversational instinct is to ask about accents, bindis (“dots”), the caste system, or arranged marriages. Maybe that is bias or racism, but it’s a curious naivete that’s infinitely harder to hate or look down upon than a tiki-torch mob.

Acknowledging that naivete, I no longer get frustrated or angry. Instead, I teach.

“I know a Dr. Patel; he lives in North Carolina? Do you know him?”

“No, I don’t. There are 4 million Indian Americans across the U.S., so it’s hard for all of us to keep in touch! “Patel” is also as common a last name among Indians as “Smith,” “Jones,” or “Johnson” are here. It’s like asking if you know my neighbor back in New Jersey just because he has the same last name; I’m guessing you probably haven’t met!”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m originally from New Jersey, where my family still lives.”

“No, where are you really from?”

“Well, I was born in India, but moved here when I was two months old. I’ve completed all my schooling here, gone to college here, and consider myself culturally American with Indian roots. Most people tend not to remember much from the first two months of their life, so practically, my life here is all I’ve lived and known!”

Likewise, acknowledging my limited insight into the lived experiences of the South, I learn. I ask my patients what it’s like to live in rural Tennessee or the ‘urban underserved’ areas of Nashville. I ask about the factors that promote or impair physical and mental wellbeing in their communities. I ask about their beliefs, values, and goals, realizing that their social contexts might frame these perceptions to be drastically different than my own precepts or presumptions. As I realize that I understand their lives and backgrounds as little as they do mine, it becomes harder to cast judgments or throw stones.

Of course, not everyone’s experiences might be as benign as I’ve been fortunate to have, or as amenable to resolution with casual conversation and cross-teaching. Medicine has much self-reflection and work to do regarding racial disparities—certainly, among others—in our physicians’ demographic composition, in our patients’ health outcomes, and in our interpersonal interactions in clinical practice. That’s a much larger matter, and I’ll table it for a more seasoned expert’s commentary.

But, for immigrant medical students and physicians, I offer this advice: the next time you encounter an off-putting or politically-incorrect remark, consider where it’s coming from, and the contexts and experiences which frame that person’s viewpoint. Consider the positive impact you might offer by deferring confrontation for education. And most critically, consider your own biases or presuppositions before judging or critiquing someone for theirs. Shared understanding isn’t always the solution, but it’s often a worthwhile start. Give it a try; I promise your patient interactions (and cortisol levels) will be all the more better for it.

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