‘Why can’t they just be doctors?’ How racism is affecting UEA medical students

Over the summer, a group of new UEA graduates posted a photo on social media with the caption: “We worked for it and we got it. The UK’s newest black doctors.” The verified Instagram account linkuptv reposted the image, which now has more than 17,000 likes.

While the post’s reception was largely positive, with notable figures such as Mo Gilligan (500k followers) praising the graduates, some took offence to the UEA graduates labelling themselves as “black doctors” rather than simply “doctors”. One Instagram user wrote: “Are they saying there is an agenda against black doctors now? Race is becoming an excuse for laziness.” Another user wrote: “Why can’t they just be doctors?”

It is established that there is a difference in attainment amongst black, Asian and minority ethinic (BAME) and non-BAME students studying medicine in the UK Nationally. In the past three years there has been an attainment gap of around 14%, with BAME students achieving lower scores than non-BAME, and at UEA this gap is at around 10%.

Talking to BAME medicine students, the general consensus is that racial discrimination is an ever-present problem. One student said they already expected to witness racism on their course before even coming to UEA. All the students I spoke to said that they have witnessed racial discrimination on the course since starting.

At UEA, a typical offer for a bachelor of medicine degree is AAA, meaning all students start the course on a relatively level playing field. So, what is the reason for this attainment gap in which the BAME students achieve less than their non-BAME counterparts?

In an attempt to answer this question, UEA held a meeting titled ‘BAME and Medicine: Differential Attainment and Experience’. During the meeting one medical student claimed a UEA tutor had used the phrase “stupid, braided hairstyles” when teaching about a condition called traction alopecia. Braided hair is a style popular in Afro-Caribbean culture, and although braided hair may be linked to traction alopecia, two London-based doctors I spoke to while gathering information for this article both stated this comment is “unacceptable”. BAME student speakers described how constant yet subtle resistance has affected them throughout their medical journey at university, from witnessing medical staff using terminology like “Negroes” and “your people”, to microaggressions from students such as: “where are you really from?” or a black student being told that they don’t “look” like they study medicine. Another student I spoke to said having to “internalise all this” will “take a toll” on academic performance.

David Richardson, UEA’s Vice Chancellor, is set to chair a group aimed at tackling racism at UK universities. In a video ahead of a Universities UK conference Richardson said: “We will come up with new guidelines, guidelines which will help us to work together in our university communities… to tackle the unacceptable issue of racial harassment.”

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Jake Walker-Charles

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August 2022
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