What will it take?

What will it take for people to start treating others without prejudice?

Personal Experiences

I go to see my doctor (GP) for what would be a normal medical check-up. It all started with really itchy skin. Background note – we have been exploring options for my itchy skin for a while now. She asks if the last option that we tried a few weeks ago is helping, I tell her sadly not.

She then decides to ring a partner dermatologist (D) that she works with to ask if I need to go for allergy tests or what the solution for the itching could be. I am happy she has a dermatologist on speed dial and that she can try to get me answers. The phone rings, the dermatologist answers. I can hear both sides of the conversation clearly. The conversation goes something like this:

GP: I have a patient here suffering with itchy skin and we have tried different solutions to no avail. We cannot tell if the skin is red as she is black, and this is harder to see. (I smile at my GP as we have talked about this)

D: Does she speak English or German

GP: English

D: Is she from Africa?

GP: Yes she is.

D: Has she tried this and that cream?

GP: Yes none of those have helped.

D: What does she do for a living?

GP: She’s a housewife (not true)

D: Have you asked how long she showers? Africans are known for taking long showers and showering too often which damages their skin.

GP: I don’t know, I didn’t ask her.

D: Does she cook with tomatoes? Africans cook everything with them…it could be the problem

GP: I don’t know, I didn’t ask…

My doctor puts the phone down and she and I start talking. I am so angry at the line of questioning and can hardly say anything to my GP except, I am not a housewife…To which she apologised and acknowledged she should have checked my file before assuming! I wonder to myself what helped her with that assumption…

I got home, sad and angry and explained to my husband, he was upset too. I told him that I was tired of feeling helpless whenever such things happened! He agreed and suggested sending my doctor an email explaining my disappointment with the conversation. I explained in detail what was wrong with the conversation, this is what I said;

– I want to be respected as a person and not be reduced to my origins.

– To denigrate the cultural norms of Africans is unfair. I have had problems with my skin in the last 2-3 years and I do not fulfil any of the clichés mentioned by the dermatologist. To assume that it has a cultural reason is unprofessional.

– Yes, I shower daily, like most people in Switzerland. The statement that it is normal for Africans to shower for a long time makes it sound as if the problems with my skin are culturally ingrained. The length of mine or anyone else’s showers can be addressed as medical advice, but not as a means to stereotype all Africans. I am very quick in the shower if you must know!

– Tomatoes contain histamines that people can react to, no doubt. Why did Africans using tomatoes need to be so negatively implied?

– For the next patient, African or not, if a problem is caused by their work, food or the length of their shower, it would be ok to talk about it and not reduce it to stereotypes.

My doctor replied the email and shee agreed that the conversation was very degrading and stated that she herself was shocked by all of it and in turn apologised for her part. I can only hope that she shared my email with the dermatologist as I requested. I would be very interested in hearing back from the dermatologist and would welcome an opportunity to speak and share why that kind of conversation should have no place in the world.

Why am I writing about this experience?

  • Because this is happening to many of us and we do nothing about it. My friend put it rightly when she said “it is a weird comment from one person over here and another funny look from another person there… And that shit adds up. And we need to talk about this”
  • Because very often we hear people say only uneducated people would be naïve enough to say some of these things. This is wrong! Some of my worst experiences have come from the most educated people.
  • It’s important to raise awareness that no matter where you come from, what you do or who you are, everyone deserves to be treated without prejudice. If you’ve been in a situation like this, share it and raise awareness about it.

Dear all, please check yourselves! The time for ignorance is over. Some may ask, why not just leave the country? Well that is just not the solution. Unlike me, there are other brown-skinned people that have fled wars and don’t just have the option to simply pack up and go! I am doing this for myself, and I am doing this for them!

What will it take for people to start treating others without prejudice? What will it take for me to get a response from a dermatologist on my skin that doesn’t dig into the showering or cooking history of all Africans across 52 countries? What can I do to make sure people understand that there are some things that you just cannot say?

I don’t know the answer to all of these questions but I know by standing up for myself I can make a maybe small but very important contribution to more equality and the acceptance of diversity in the world.

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