"Say My Name": A Medical Student's Experience with Microaggressions

Antoinette Leonard-Jean Charles
Published on Jul 3, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

As part of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives at Osmosis, we've launched a new blog series: Minorities in Medicine. By sharing these stories, we're hoping to build more caring, empathetic clinicians who understand the challenges faced by minorities in the US and around the world, while also providing a platform to celebrate their successes and achievements. Today, Antoinette Leonard-Jean Charles, a third-year medical student at American University of Integrated Sciences, shares her and her family's experiences with the all-too-frequent microaggressions they face as African Americans in the US. 

June 19, 2020, was another Juneteenth among many. For most Americans, this date holds no significance, although that's changing—many of you celebrated for the first time this year. In the African American (aka Black) community, Juneteenth is a day of celebration, solidarity, a day off from work. Many in our community know why this day, why this month: June 19, 1866 was the day Texas freed its prisoners by letting enslaved people know they were free (yes, I said prisoners). The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln, was a full three years earlier (1863). However, slave owners decided to free their slaves on this day: June 19, 1866. 

From this background, I bring us to modern-day America, afflicted with the COVID-19 pandemic, health inequalities, police brutality, and disproportionate and untimely deaths in the African American community. Pandemic aside, none of this is new: it is the everyday experience of African American people in the US. What seems to be new to the world is my past, present, and future… but I hope it is not my sons’ future.

Who I am: My identities as an African American woman

I am an American. My maternal family’s blood, sweat, tears, and brainpower laid the foundation that we—my family—all get to walk and build upon. Within my paternal family, one half contains first-generation immigrants through Ellis Island (from Italy), and the other half was almost pushed to extinction with the arrival of imperialism. I grew up being taught to be proud, to blaze a trail, and to never apologize for who I am. Idealistic and fanciful, right? Well, I don’t think so, and have lived just that way, with scars, questions, and anger to show for it. 

I am a mother raising two African American males: members of an endangered species. I find myself telling my sons the opposite of what my parents so easily and readily told me as a light-skinned African American woman; for my children, who are not, the rules are different, although I wish it weren’t so. As I supported my sons through their respective educations (one is an eighth-grader, the other a college student), the outside world view of them, and us as a family, is bluntly clear: the world too often sees us as hoodlums, undereducated, poor, just to name the most hurtful.

“In my shoes”: Microaggressions in three acts

While I am happy the rest of the world is finally starting to wake up to the African American reality that's been going on for centuries, there’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the double or even triple standards we have to deal with depending on our shade (melanin concentration) or gender. These biases are seen most clearly in the education system. Whether it’s teacher-to-student or student-to-student, microaggressions and biases can be very harmful to students, and to their parents as well. Here are some of the experiences me and my family have dealt with over the years. 

Microaggressions from faculty

Let’s play a game: “In my Shoes.” Imagine you are an African American woman pursuing higher education (masters or higher) and you hear comments from your professors, like:

  • “I know time management is an issue for some students...” as they look directly at you in the class of white students when you arrive at 11:58 for a 12:00 class. 

  • “Antoinette? How do you spell your name? Let me guess, with a Q or W?” 

  • “You must be a single mom and have your hands full—good for you for trying to set a better example despite your situation!”

Okay, so tell me: how do you feel after this exercise? How is your self-confidence? What if all those comments hit you in a day, a week, or a month? That is a drop in the bucket. All of these statements happened in real life and came from professors and faculty at the graduate education level (during my Masters, my PhD, and my MD). My personal favorite comment was when a professor corrected me to say, “African Americans are African who got their citizenship; Americans are Black.” I was bewildered. None of the other minority students said anything; they all looked away. Now how do you feel? 

Osmosis illustration of a medical student being subject to microaggressions.

Microaggressions from my fellow students

Okay, you made it to level two: student-to-student microaggressions:

  • “Are you Muslim? Because you have a turban on your head.”

  • “Wow, we’re almost the same color!” (from a tanned young lady who places her arm and face next to mine as she grabs her phone to take a selfie).

  • “No, that cannot be the right answer, professor—symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis in females present the same as a male, right?”

How are you feeling now? Let me guess: questioning if you deserve to be where you are. Wondering if you earned it. Isolated, alone, and finding it harder and harder to enjoy what you are doing without fear. 

Microaggressions directed at my family

In the last level of our game, imagine you have been living with these daily experiences for your whole life, and come home from another microaggression-filled day to your family. Your son is in tears: he received a zero on his class project. You ask, “Why? How does a kid get a zero on a project about your favorite family trip? You did such a good job!” He replies, “Because the teacher told me off in front of the whole class, saying it was supposed to be based on a real trip, not a dream trip.”

The trip was real. It happened. The teacher simply couldn’t imagine a family like yours going on, what she considers a dream trip (Seaworld Discovery Cove, opening day, swimming with the dolphins). So, what do you do?

  1. Console your son, and let it go. 

  2. Be angry, hurt, devastated, comfort your son, and then call the teacher.

  3. Soothe your son and cry when everyone goes to sleep. Send an email to the teacher with pictures of the trip, because you feel the need to explain how you were able to afford it. Go to the school the following day to speak with the principal and teacher to discuss, as calmly as possible, the issue. 

The right answer may depend on your perspective. No matter what your response, you cannot escape the fact that your son has been victimized, like you, and there is genuinely no way to protect him from this pain. Welcome to the mental state of many African Americans in higher education or parenting.

While many will dismiss microaggressions and their effects on students, parents, and families, I hope that my game has helped you to understand their impacts. If you would like to learn more about this, I would recommend reading this article on microaggressions in medical school, in which Espaillat et al. discuss the effects of victimization by microaggression, depression, hypervigilance, skepticism, rage, anger, fatigue, and hopelessness, and anxiety. For many, it will be an eye-opener. For me, I was unsurprised.

Looking forward

Forgive my tone, but these last three weeks have felt heavier and scarier than most years, even if the dominant worldview is beginning to include people like me. However, the hate and fear of those who do not want change, just like the Texas slave owners of 1866, will do their best to stop it from happening through acts of violence and brutality, and abuses of power. I can only speak from my perspective as a mother, wife, MD student, PhD student, and African American (Indigenous). While I stay hopeful, I will always be keeping a watchful eye on my sons to ensure they stay as safe as possible. 

Osmosis illustration of an African American medical student imagining a brighter future.

"Get woke" post-blog reading (aka references)

Espaillat, A., Panna, D. K., Goede, D. L., Gurka, M. J., Novak, M. A., & Zaidi, Z. (2019). An exploratory study on microaggressions in medical school: What are they and why should we care? Perspectives on Medical Education, 8(3), 143–151. 

Kumagai, A. K., Jackson, B., & Razack, S. (2017). Cutting Close to the Bone. Academic Medicine, 92(3), 318–323. 

Shartzer, A., Long, S. K., & Anderson, N. (2016). Access To Care And Affordability Have Improved Following Affordable Care Act Implementation; Problems Remain. Health Affairs, 35(1), 161–168. 


About Antoinette 

Antoinette Leonard-Jean Charles is an MS III at American University of Integrative Sciences School of Medicine, and current participant in the Osmosis Medical Education Fellowship Program. She is passionate about women’s health and clinical education.


If you'd like to share an experience of your own, feel free to reach out to [email protected] with a story pitch—we're always happy to give a voice to current and future clinicians, particularly during these times, when listening is of vital importance.

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