For each of the past 10 days, I’ve woken up and asked myself the same questions: Do I matter? Does my life have as much value as that of anyone else?
I haven’t had positive answers to these questions. Not any that I could be confident in anyway. For me, at times being a Black man in America has been more difficult than the journey I’ve taken thus far to become a physician, one of my greatest life goals. Throughout my education, when I was deficient in a skill or lacked adequate knowledge, I could practice and study to progress towards proficiency.
As a Black man, this opportunity often doesn’t exist. I cannot remove my black skin, and no amount of education, professional clothing, social expertise, discernment or humility can overcome the intrinsic systematic and personal discrimination I face daily. All this simply on the basis of the way I was born, something out of my control.
At my graduation nearly three weeks ago, it was said that, “You’re always a physician, whether at work, home or elsewhere.” But for me, I often feel like a 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-11-inch Black man wearing nondescript clothing with no name, face, identity or value. I live in a chronic state of fear and discomfort that at any moment I may be a victim of any number of unfortunate incidents.
For example, in 2008, as my friend and I played catch in the park near our brothers’ elementary school at dusk, waiting for a cub scouts meeting to end, a police vehicle jumped the curve and drove directly towards me with his front headlights on. The officer exited his vehicle and aggressively asked us what we were doing there. We indicated why we were there and subsequently had to accompany him into the school to confirm that we were not trespassing in the park.
In the summer of 2012, police officers came to my home while my parents were at work and questioned whether or not I lived there. They asked to step inside my house and for confirmation that I lived in my own home. This was the result of a morning pulling weeds at my mother’s request, and the overzealous call of a neighbor who said she saw a trespasser. My family moved into the home in 2004, and I had lived there consecutively for six years before leaving for college.
In 2013, while eating a family dinner at Bear’s Den at Washington University in St. Louis, I watched as one of my best friends (now a physician), was detained and questioned by campus police in reference to a submitted police profile that neither fit his height nor clothing (an inadequate and erroneous tip). This stood on top of the custom we had as Black men on campus to always have a backpack, lest you be detained and questioned about the validity of your presence.
It’s not my job to teach individuals and institutions to treat me as an equally valued human being. However, I do strongly believe that it is our collective responsibility to create a better, more equitable society to preserve the future for our posterity, our profession and our country.
Racism isn’t your fault or mine, but it unequivocally exists. It’s salience has simply once again increased. We were born into a set of circumstances that enabled the systematic racism and structural violence against various vulnerable groups. If we perpetuate this inequity we are complicit in the prejudices of our ancestors.
We need to have the courage to be better, to engage with this struggle each and every day, and step-by-step build a better future. This shouldn’t be through only thoughts, prayers, conversation, statements and social media posts, but also tangible changes and actionable items. I’m confident that the SVS, other leading organizations in vascular surgery, educational institutions and individuals can demonstrate significant leadership in changing our country for the better.
Reginald Nkansah, MD, a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, is an integrated vascular surgery resident at the University of Washington in Seattle.