“You know who you remind me of, Ali,” the plastic surgeon standing opposite me in the operating room said. “Snoop Dogg. You sound just like him.”
Is he serious? Am I the only one who heard what he just said? My mind raced.
I was dumbfounded, but as a brown man living in Salt Lake City, I had had worse things said to me. I convinced myself he didn’t deserve a response. Just let it go, I told myself. He’s just an ignorant white guy.
He proceeded to call me “Snoop” for the next five hours, with the occasional “brotha” thrown in the mix. My cheeks grew visibly more flushed with each insult. By this point, I had to say something, but I couldn’t. I held my tongue, afraid my rage-fueled retaliation would make me out to be an “overly sensitive millennial.”
Throughout all of this, I tried to read his eyes. Was this his way of trying to relate? I soon realized that despite the surgical gown and mask I wore, the surgeon only saw brown skin and dark eyes staring back at him. There was nothing I could say. He had already assigned me a label and was treating me accordingly.
The rest of the case was a blur. I asked the team if they were okay with me stepping out to grab a quick bite to eat. But that was a lie. I was fasting for the month of Ramadan and knew that I still had a few hours before sunset.
I used to believe I knew how to thrive in white spaces, but there are days where no Oscar-worthy performance is enough. The clean-cut, charismatic routine I have woven into my being is at times exhausting, but I feel like it is something I must do, constantly contorting myself when necessary to fit into the tiny box of acceptable brown people.
After all, it was my ability to navigate white spaces that led me to areas such as the OR in the first place. But despite my best efforts, I have no control over how I’m perceived. There’s no on-off switch for my brownness that could have shielded me from the words of that plastic surgeon.
Words that I’ve heard far too often, burning like a thousand tiny papercuts, slowly wearing down the soul and creating a corrosive environment of self-doubt.
This is how I move through medicine: a trapezist walking the tightrope of white spaces. If I lose focus, even just for a second, I risk falling.