Let’s turn anguish into action

A message from School of Medicine Dean Sharon Anderson

Dr. Quinn Capers IV was just here from Ohio State last week talking about implicit bias and its role in health disparities. At his all-campus lecture, he referenced the case of Botham Jean, the black, 26-year-old Dallas accountant who was shot to death in his own apartment last year when a white, female, off-duty police officer mistook his apartment for hers, saw him and reacted. Had the man she saw been white, Dr. Capers wondered aloud, would he still be alive?

And then, on Sunday, another incident eerily echoing Mr. Jean’s death: In the early morning hours in Fort Worth, Texas, two police officers responded to a neighbor’s call for a welfare check at a woman’s home where the front door was open and a light was on. The officers were searching the perimeter of the home when they saw a person standing at the window inside. One officer yelled, “Put your hands up; show me your hands!” Then, according to CNN, he fired his gun, killing the woman in her bedroom.

The officer is white. The woman, Atatiana Koquice Jefferson, a 28-year-old college graduate and pharmaceutical sales rep, was black. She had been up playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew when there were noises outside.

We don’t know what was going through the officer’s mind. Was he simply responding to a possible intruder, saw a person and assumed the worst? Did he notice her race? Did he know he was in a black neighborhood? Perhaps the investigation will bring this out.

But when yet another person gets shot in their own home, it is a moment to consider why and an opportunity to act.

“Diversity saves lives,” Dr. Capers, vice dean for faculty affairs at Ohio State University College of Medicine, who has gained a national reputation around addressing implicit bias, told us Thursday in his standing-room-only lecture “The Lack of Diversity in Medicine is a National Emergency: The Way Forward.” His point: when we penetrate the shroud of our biases, break through to our shared humanity and embrace the power and the solutions that can come from incorporating multiple perspectives, this is where we heal rather than harm.

For our OHSU community members who identify with Mr. Jean and Ms. Jefferson, we must offer comfort. Home. Safety. When the linkage between these is severed, we are in a troubling place.

We must take this moment to examine our workforce, policies and practices that discriminate against students, faculty and employees who are not white or members of a dominant group. We must embrace and deepen our commitment to furthering the benefits derived from our OHSU Unconscious Bias Campus-wide Initiative; lean in to ongoing learning opportunities to expose our natural biases so that we can mitigate them; engage in bystander training that we are increasingly making available, and take the four steps that Dr. Capers shared in his workshops:

To address implicit bias in interviews, patient care and interpersonal interactions:

  • Common identity formation: Look for what you have in common (your birth order, your pets, your hometown, your alma mater); empathy reduces bias and shifts the perspective from “them” to “us.”
  • Perspective taking: Put yourself in their shoes. Think about what it took them to get to this appointment or moment. Relate on a human level.
  • Consider the opposite: If certain data led you to one conclusion, look for data that would support the opposite. Challenge your assumptions.
  • Counter stereotypical exemplars: Spend time with or focus on individuals you admire from groups against which you recognize you have a bias.

If you’re having trouble grasping all of this, read the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,” by Robin Diangelo. It was a hard read. But I’m glad I read it.

It is easy to want to turn away from the turmoil in the world today. We must, instead, turn our anguish into action.

Please join me.

Sharon Anderson, M.D.
Dean, OHSU School of Medicine

Photo caption: Dean Sharon Anderson offered a formal welcome to Dr. Quinn Capers (third from left) Oct. 10 at his all-campus lecture, followed by Jason Campbell, M.D., second-year resident in anesthesiology and preoperative medicine, (far left) who introduced Dr. Capers, his mentor at Ohio State College of Medicine. Esther Choo, M.D., associate professor of emergency medicine, far right, and Dr. Capers are contemporaries in racial equity commentary on Twitter.

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