Understanding the symbolic power of my white coat

Like many Americans, I have been confused, surprised, angered and saddened (often all at the same time) by recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York and too many other cities across our country. More specifically, I cried when I learned of the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

In response, for the first time ever, I decided to attend a rally and march in Portland protesting these events and the underlying challenges they present for our society. For me, this decision also required me to consider for the first time the role of my white coat in making a statement at the rally. Would I attend the rally as a future physician, a citizen or some combination of both? And what is the significance of my choice?

Our white coats, short though they still are, are symbols of our profession. Our profession is one held up by many in this country as one of educated, responsible, kind individuals, and we are conferred rights, privileges and responsibilities by virtue of our engagement in this profession (much like, some might comment, police officers). We were told so at our white coat ceremony, when we stood and took the Oath of Geneva for the first time. We are told so when we are held to the highest standards of professionalism, defined by our profession and our academic institution.

Can I, then, represent my profession, not just my person, at this protest? I protest what happened in Ferguson as an American, as a person of color, as a citizen, as a civilian and as a human being. Do I also protest it as a medical student?

I cannot easily think of another profession (again, the police force comes to mind here) whose trainees wear such an easily recognizable marker. Am I, a second-year student, posturing when I wear my white coat to this protest, or by leaving it in my locker, am I eschewing an important responsibility?

I already find myself, when talking to friends and family, couching what I know to be personal beliefs as separate from my day life as a medical student: “We didn’t learn this in school, but I think that drinking hot tea with turmeric and honey bolsters my immune system…” At the same time, my title as “medical student” feels more central to my identity than my previous professional titles (not to mention that my title on wedding invitations and email coupons, both decidedly personal, will change in a few years).

Simultaneously, I feel more responsibility to conduct myself appropriately in the public arena then I did before medical school and feel that it is even more important to be engaged and knowledgeable on social issues. In fact, maybe my decision to attend my first protest is in part because of my experiences over the last year as a medical student. And yet, and yet, I am not sure that I can wear my white coat at that protest – I am not sure I have passed some sort of invisible test, or earned my merit badge, quite yet. Is that unnecessary, crippling self doubt or healthy humility?

To conclude – it turned out that my white coat was at the dry cleaner’s and I couldn’t get it back in time for the protests, so I went in my raincoat, my OHSU badge tucked in my pocket as we were instructed* not to display the university logo at the protest. I was proud to stand by my friend wearing his coat, a peace sign covering the identifying logo and my friend who chose not to wear her coat. I think I would have been proud of myself for wearing my coat to the protest, but I am not sure I would have had the courage or tenacity to. At least not yet.


* OHSU understands the white coat is emblematic of the medical profession, however, as a public entity, OHSU cannot endorse a political act. OHSU welcomes robust debate about important issues and supports individual rights to free speech and values its active, engaged study body.