Wingfield Treats Racism in Medicine

By Michael Haggerty – While racism in the medical profession has diminished in recent decades, discrimination persists. Adia Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, illuminated this issue at the 2017 Lemert Lecture, hosted on May 11 by the Department of Sociology. Her talk was entitled "Professional Work in a Postracial Era: Black Professionals in the New Economy."

Wingfield’s current work, which focuses on the everyday working lives of black, medical professionals, began as an attempt to “give voice to everyday processes that marginalize groups of color.” In recent years, the medical community has moved beyond the intentionally segregated structure of the post-World War II economy, toward a more diverse configuration. Yet discrimination persists. By focusing on the everyday experiences of black professionals in the medical community, Wingfield hopes to highlight the limitations of current diversity initiatives.

Doctors and nurses

Her research focuses on two professional categories: black nurses and black doctors. In her presentation, Wingfield noted that each of these groups experiences different race-based interactions on a daily basis. In order to ascertain a better understanding for the daily experiences of black medical professionals, she conducted interviews with a variety of nurses and doctors. She also carried out field observations of their daily routines, and distributed surveys as part of The American Panel Survey (a monthly online survey taken from a panel of 2,000 adults in the United States).

Wingfield, author of No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work, found that while doctors of color tend to speak of race as something symbolic or abstract, nurses maintain that race is a persistent issue with which they must contend daily. For example, many of the doctors interviewed by Dr. Wingfield spoke of racism as a “one-time” occurrence, noting the occasional rude comment or microaggression.

In contrast, nurses experienced racism in a more personal and visceral way. Nurses noted racist comments made both by coworkers and patients—comments that would often be internalized and go on to inform daily behaviors, such as when nurses excessively washed their hands in front of patients so that they would not be perceived as unclean. 

Focusing on the day-to-day

Different positions within the medical community, Wingfield concluded, may require different approaches for promoting diversity and acceptance. Programs that broadly emphasize cultural competence, a defined set of ethics, and principles that promote work relationships across cultural lines may not be able to effectively address discrimination within the medical community. 

To truly promote acceptance, she suggested, institutions should focus on how discrimination manifests from day to day. If they fail to appreciate the diverse ways in which issues of race and gender affect workers’ lives, diversity initiatives will perpetually fail to create a more inclusive workplace. 

Learn more about Adia Wingfield.