Lessons from Anti-Racism Town Halls

Every year, PAEA’s Anti-Racism Town Halls, organized by the Association and the Diversity and Inclusion Mission Advancement Commission (DIMAC,) provide a space for PA students to share their stories, experiences, and feelings on the racism that continues to pervade the fabric of the country.

In September, town hall attendees were encouraged to share their lived experiences bravely while still being respectful of others.

The PA students’ conversation centered three themes:  

  1. Diversity focused student groups may be allowed but are not heard. – It is important that students report incidents of racism or discrimination so that they can be handled appropriately. However, some students are afraid to be labeled as the “angry Black woman” or problematic. In addition, there are times when programs fail to address the issue once it is raised. For example, a DEI committee refused to address an incident in which a professor referred to Black people as “the blacks.” Therefore, students are asking for more support and engagement from their program and encourage faculty and staff to reach out and be more proactive about these issues.   
  2. Students face discrimination from all angles: peers, patients, educators. – Students have been racially profiled by campus security and by members of the communities where they live while going about their daily lives and spending time with their families. Some students, who were born in the United States, have been treated as “exotic” and are asked how long they have been in the U.S. and whether they were allowed to work here, or if they will go back to their country. In addition, some students have been called racial slurs by patients and made to feel unqualified because of both ethnic background and age. These incidents such as being confused for another student or facing racist and prejudiced comments from students and faculty add up. 
  3. PA students expect more protection from their programs. – Ultimately, students understand that racist incidents will occur. However, they expect PA programs to have built a culture and processes to hold faculty, staff, and students accountable. In addition, the students need to have skills for navigating these issues. For example, students discussed how to have a conversation with their preceptor if an incident happens at the clinic and what the program should do to provide a safe environment for students. 

Three major themes emerged from the PA faculty and staff discussion:  

  1. Isolation is traumatizing. – It is important that programs recognize the social isolation and trauma that underrepresented in medicine (URiM) faculty and staff can feel as one of the only people of color in their programs. Many URiM faculty are traumatized by the undue scrutiny of students and the lack of institutional support from their programs. When they speak out about injustice, they feel like they are ostracized and “not one of us.” In some cases, faculty of color have been accused of “attacking” their colleagues in meetings when they were just disagreeing with them. The second-guessing, defensiveness, and gaslighting in a toxic environment have caused faculty to leave tenure-track positions. 
  2. Student bias harms educators but is left unaddressed. – URiM faculty and staff discussed how they constantly feel challenged by unconscious racial bias from both students and their programs. This is evident in students questioning their lessons, providing poor student evaluations, and in some cases, students would even ask other professors to confirm the validity of their teaching. Some students have even called for the disciplining or firing of faculty.  When students question the authority of URiM faculty or the need for lessons in racism and inequality, white faculty need to take the lead in validating the cause by adding their social power behind it. They need to speak up and be a part of the change.  
  3. PA programs need to do more to support URiM faculty and staff.  – One major step that programs can take is to encourage, mentor, and empower URiM faculty and staff. An inclusive environment is one in which everyone feels valued and supporting their growth as lifelong learners is key to allowing them to thrive. This is important in retaining faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds.  Some programs are advancing anti-racist efforts by creating an anti-racism committee and appointing a department equity chair, which works on goals and conducts outreach. At one program, the chair is a paid role and this emphasized the university prioritizes this work and the committee has institutional support because the university has allocated financial resources.  

In both town halls, the discussion was led by three PA relevant panelists who were identified for their efforts in advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in their respective programs. These sessions were not recorded, and all data collected was anonymized.   

Hearing directly from students, faculty, and staff enables PAEA to tailor our programming to suit their needs. Last year’s takeaways from the 2022 Anti-Racism Town Halls are still relevant and worth revisiting. We appreciate the support of the PAEA Board of Directors and others to stand up as collaborators in the fight against racism.