Sterotypes, Generalization, Prejudice and, at best, Bad Manners

Recently, I suffered a sprained shoulder and after a doctor’s visit, I was referred to physical therapy for help in rebuilding strength in my right shoulder. Let me say this right from the start, I am in no way, shape, or form a malingerer. So on my first visit, everything was about evaluating and trying to gather as much information about the injury determine the best treatment regimen for me. By the second visit, one is supposed to have a plan of treatment tailored to his or her injury explained and agreed to. Well, I got more than that on the second visit.

This well known physical therapist began to talk to me, inquiring about my life as one would during sessions to put the patient at ease, find out how you lifestyle may be impacting the injury, and to get full demographics. I mentioned that years ago I had a car accident and, at the time, I worked for a local bank and the accident involved one of the security officers from the very bank. Immediately this physical therapists states, “wow, you have had many jobs and you are only 42 years old.” I was baffled because I only mentioned my current job and I was just telling him about the accident and an old injury. As the hour went on, the therapist asked where I lived at the time of the first accident. I told him I had bought a home in Bethlehem and that was where I lived. He immediately said “well working at a bank for low wages and buying a home means you were thrifty and must have eaten lost of left-overs.” At this time I thought how rude and presumptuous. Of course I refrained from what would have been delivering very a sharp response.

He asked how many children I have and if I were married. I told him 2 girls and of course , he knew from my intake sheet that I was not married. Here is where is got interesting: He immediately said, “oh wow, you are unmarried with 2 daughters. You have to teach them to do better than you: not to pick the wrong guy but to pick one that will stick around. I bet their FATHERS (notice plural) are not involved in their lives therefore they have no real role models.” OK, so right here, he is making a prejudicial statement. I did not disclose if my daughters were from the same man and it was none of his business. This struck a cord in my head because every time I say to someone who is not black that I have 2 children and am unmarried, they automatically assume that I am some sexually depraved woman that had children by two different men.

A bit later ( I was there for 1&1/2 hours) , he asked: “so where do you kids go to school?” I told him a private school and he seemed surprised by this information. He went on to ask, “so your eldest will be off to college soon; where do you think she would want to go?” When I told him the schools my children expected to attend, the ugliness of his thoughts came full forward. He stated: “Oh,well it seems the less money you have the better your chances would be to attend a great school. My daughter is at an expensive and private college for which I pay 39K yearly and she is the only white person there. She calls home and tells me all the time that in the science class, all the other students are black and how she feels being the only blond haired girl in her class. I guess the financial aid systems really works.”

Now I became ticked off. First, he automatically assumed that I was a loose woman who picked the wrong men and had children by them, that I could not have bought a home as a single mother without eating left-overs, and now, the only way my daughters can go to college is by depending on financial aid. Not to mention suggesting the students in his daughter’s class, who are obviously as smart if not smarter than his daughter, are only there because of financial aid!!! I had it by this point. I thought of what we spoke about in class: The issue of stereotyping and generalizations and how ubiquitous it is . This therapist also went on to tell me that he knows that I want to be out of work and that he suspected that nothing is really wrong with my shoulder!! I was flabbergasted because I was clearly referred to him because my job and primary care provider thought there was something wrong with my shoulder.

What I took away from these visits is that this man in unconsciously biased. He does not think the black woman he sees in front of him is a person capable of providing for her children’s education without depending on the government for financial aid. I understand that many blacks do attend college on full or partial scholarships but then again, so do thousands of white students, and not ALL BLACKS need financial aid. In fact, my children will never have to apply for financial aid because my daughters’ father, my parents, and I have made provisions for them to attend any school the meet the academic requirements to attend, once accepted. It just burnt my skin that this man displayed such poor judgement in speaking to me that way. Not to mention that this line of questioning and commenting by this man further lends to the health care disparities in our society . After my visit, I was driving home and I had these questions in my head:

  1. How could well educated professional working in the years 2012 with such diverse populations of patients , create such an atmosphere that appears discriminatory?
  2. How does one make such judgements and let the words pass their lips ?
  3. How can I re-educate this man without seeming militant and or negatively impacting my care?
  4. If I were white, would he make such assumptions, and inferences?

A study done by Burgess and van Ryh (2008) was about : understanding the provider contribution to race/ethnicity disparities in pain treatment. It stated: Providers are likely to apply information contained in racial /ethnic stereotypes to interpret symptoms and make decisions. Stereotypes are likely to be used when stereotypic information is perceived as clinically relevant, and the decision is complex.

I feel helpless to tackle this issue with this therapist, because he as well many may argue, he was just making small talk and/or giving good advice. But somehow I can’t seem to get the sting of his words out of my mind. I thought of not returning to this provider and suggesting he takes a class is cultural sensitivity. But just like in class, I do not want to be seen as “the expert on all things black and/or prejudicial” . But how do I confront this issue and ultimately , what would that solve?


I welcome you thoughts!