By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black
(WIB) – Becoming a physician has been an uphill battle for so many Black women like Jasmine Brown — a third-year medical student at the University of Pennslyvania who testifies about her trials in her new book, “Twice As Hard.”
Since she was a youth, Brown made it her mission to fight for more representation in medicine after being the only Black student in her AP classes. On top of feeling alone, she endured racist insults from her peers.
Sadly, the discrimination didn’t stop when she got to college.
It only transformed as she experienced, once again, the isolating experience of being the only Black student in her lab class.
But like Black women often do, she kept showing up despite the frustration she felt inside. She didn’t let her goals die.
Brown used her academic studies as a refuge and began researching the lives of past Black women physicians and their plight to hold space in the medical industry, all while being pushed out.
That research, which she conducted as a Rhodes Scholar — one of the world’s most prestigious awards that brings college graduates to the University of Oxford — led her to become a published author.
Her debut book — “Twice As Hard: The Stories Of Black Women Who Fought To Become Physicians, From The Civil War To The 21st Century” — chronicles the hills climbed by women like Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who became the first Black American woman to receive a doctor of medicine, and other pioneering women whose stories have gone untold.
Brown sat down with Word In Black for an interview about what it took for her to persevere in the midst of racism, write a book about other women who’ve done the same, and her master plan for increasing diversity in medicine.
WIB: In your debut book, you chronicled the challenges Black women breaking into medicine faced in the past. How relatable were their experiences for you and others in today’s society? And what challenges have you faced as a Black woman in medicine?
JB: I could relate to various challenges that the Black women physicians in my book experienced. For example, many of them grew up being told that they couldn’t become physicians because they were Black women. In the 1930s, Dr. Lena Edwards was even rejected from a residency program eight years in a row. The chief of staff at the hospital said the reason she had been rejected was because she had two “handicaps” — she was Black and a woman. This physician was asserting that Dr. Edwards wasn’t likely to succeed in residency because her identities made her inferior. I’ve been told similar things. When I was in elementary school, one of my classmates told me that I won’t do well in school because “I’m Black and Black people are stupid.”
On the flipside, I had family, friends, and teachers who have encouraged me to go after my dreams. I also found that the women in my book had people supporting them along their journeys. I believe having a strong support system was crucial to our success.
WIB: What did the women in your book do to activate their resiliency? How did they heal or press on after racist and sexist encounters?
JB: Many of the women in my book remained focused on their goals of becoming successful physicians. That kept them moving forward even when painful encounters with racism and sexism could’ve knocked them off track. Once they became physicians, they put a lot of energy into serving disadvantaged communities who had limited access to proper healthcare. I imagine having a positive impact on others helped them heal from the racism and sexism they experienced throughout their medical journeys.
WIB: And what about you? How have you kept going despite the discrimination you’ve faced as a Black woman in medicine?
JB: My book, and other advocacy work that I’ve done, has had a similar impact on me. I’m working to reduce the number of racist and sexist encounters that people face in medicine. Helping others in that way gives me a lot of joy and helps me to heal from the difficult experiences I’ve had along my journey.
WIB: Can you talk more about your mission to increase diversity in medicine? I read that this has been your focus since you were a child. What inspired such a serious undertaking at a young age?
JB: About 10% of my high school classmates were Black, but I was typically the only Black person in my AP classes. I felt like my Black classmates were just as smart as me, but many didn’t have as much support as I did.
A big challenge that many of us faced was being told racist stereotypes at a young age. Since elementary school, I had classmates telling me that I wouldn’t do well in school because I’m Black and “Black people aren’t smart.” This messaging could’ve negatively impacted my own perception of my capabilities. Thankfully, my parents counteracted those negative messages with positivity. They told me that they knew I was capable of excelling in school, and that’s what they expected of me. They also supported this goal by creating a good study environment at home and helping me with my studies whenever I needed it. In comparison, some of my Black friends were not able to spend as much time on their studies because they were working part-time to help support their families.
I believed that this difference in support contributed to the lack of Black students in these advanced classes and would have long-term repercussions on the students’ lives. So, when I was in high school, I had this desire to do something that would increase the number of Black students in higher education and STEM careers. I started working towards that mission in college when I founded the Minority Association of Rising Scientists [at Washington University-St. Louis].
Many of the women in my book remained focused on their goals of becoming successful physicians. That kept them moving forward even when painful encounters with racism and sexism could’ve knocked them off track.
WIB: How do you hope for your book to contribute to your mission?
JB: The potential impact of my book is two-fold. First, by sharing the stories of Black women physicians, I will counter one of the barriers that Black women pursuing medicine still experience today: a lack of mentors and role models who share their identities and have pursued a similar career path. With these narratives, more Black girls, and other young people who don’t see themselves represented in medicine, may be inspired to become physicians.
Second, sharing the challenges Black women physicians experienced throughout history could be a catalyst for change. Many race- and gender-based barriers to entering medicine have persisted throughout history. By showing the historical progression of social and structural barriers that make it difficult for oppressed groups — such as Black women — to enter medicine, those interested in addressing issues around representation and inclusion within medicine will have a better understanding of the underlying causes of this widespread issue allowing them to develop more effective strategies to address it.
WIB: Where can people find your book? Do you have any upcoming tours?
JB: My book is available anywhere that books are sold! I’ve been giving talks at medical schools, universities, etc. If you’re interested in having me speak at your institution, reach out to me via my website: jasminebrownauthor.com.
WIB: What’s next for you in medicine?
JB: Currently, I’m in my third year of medical school. I have to take my medical licensing exams and a few more clinical electives (apprentice-like work in the hospital). Then, I’ll apply to residency programs!