Lesson in Humility

Editor’s Note: This is a blog post about the Privilege and Responsibility Curricular Exercise. Read this recent Academic Medicine article for more on this program.

By: Juliann Binienda, PhD, associate professor, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences, Wayne State University

There I was sitting at an all-day family medicine research day conference of about 100 physicians, faculty, residents, and students. It was time for lunch, which included a speaker. I admit I don’t like conference speakers at lunchtime. I usually need a break. Up to the podium came the speaker who started talking about discrimination, biases, social determinants of health, and prejudice. The audience included a few minorities, but the vast majority of attendees were white.

The speaker, Dr. Denise White-Perkins, asked us to respond to a series of statements by circling the ones that pertained to us. The statements had to do with fears, education, safety, airport TSA lines, etc. I just wanted to eat my lunch. I circled most of the statements and I stood up. She asked us to remain standing based on how many statements we had circled. I felt righteous in remaining standing. Even though I am white, I understood discrimination. I had felt discriminated against because of my gender and ethnicity. I thought it was a dumb exercise. The lesson was so obvious. Everyone in the room was excited, talking with their tablemates, looking around at each other. Toward the end, I sat down. I began to feel very uncomfortable. The attendees became quieter as more and more white attendees remained standing. I realized that those who remained standing were living like I do—taking day-to-day living for granted. I don’t think twice about interacting with the police, TSA agents, shopping in stores, or being in certain neighborhoods or with certain groups. By the end, only one white man was left standing.

I was taught and raised to believe in individual responsibility and in all of us having equal advantage. Was that true? Do we all have equal advantage? “White” privilege does exist, and this lunchtime exercise drove the point home. What started out as an intrusion into my break time turned into a deeper lesson in humility and a recognition of my arrogance and naiveté. Turns out, the lesson wasn’t so obvious, and while I knew what the concept of discrimination was, I had never truly experienced it. I hope I never do. I now have a federal grant, and I invited Dr. White-Perkins to be a co-investigator with me to keep health disparities and social determinants at the forefront of all of our activities. This lunchtime exercise taught me to be less naïve and arrogant and always hungry for more awareness.

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