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Nashwa Lina Khan Headshot

Microaggressions Weigh Heavy on the Heart

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"We don't need another Dr. Khan."

When these words were uttered by a good friend, I didn't know how to react. This was said by someone I lived with and whom I thought understood and respected me, seeing beyond my skin color.

I can remember wanting to be a doctor since the age of six. My parents never instilled this dream in me, contrary to popular belief. I had a great doctor and wanted to be just like them. Not every Desi family is filled with M.D.s and J.D.s. On the "Khan" side of my family that has over 20 cousins, only two people have pursued medicine.

Growing up, the majority of my life was a sea of whiteness. Until the final two-years of my undergraduate degree, I steered far from thinking of my identity and how society views me in a larger context.

I only began interacting with my extended family on a more regular basis in high school. I do not have resentment toward my upbringing or white people, but I do think it lead me to being "color blind." Entering university, a constant element in my life was white people, but I slowly began to realize that I wasn't white. This was a complicated realization, but most strikingly I realized I was very different from my own perceptions. I know this might sound strange growing up with a name like Nashwa, having skin darker than my peers, and features that were very different. I now realize I grew up posturing whiteness, even in having let my name be shortened or made easier for white people to enunciate.

I think my realizations were delayed because of school administrators often integrating me as a token. As a racialized child, one who could speak with no accent, do well in school and play sports and instruments at mediocre levels, they could mold me to fit in and meet diversity quotas. They could champion me; I was the brown girl at student senate representing what otherwise looked like a very homogeneous white space. I was Muslim, but not "scary Muslim."
I really didn't understand where I fit in and it wasn't until I was older that I understood how I was used as a pawn. Fellow women of color who became my friends also unknowingly became my teachers. It became an iterative process for me. In retrospect, I realize I was silent on many occasions, but I was also systemically silenced by an inability to articulate an identity I still do not entirely understand.

Alongside this realization was acceptance of my heritage and the understanding of the importance of my familial history. I kept my goal in sight of becoming a doctor, but with a new lens of doing it to create safe spaces in healthcare, thinking of the issues my own parents had as newcomers navigating the healthcare system and trying to find empathetic, culturally-competent physicians.

I see merit in bodies that are not the norm in spaces like medicine. I better understand that a mere presence can resonate with patient populations and create safer spaces to access doctors. I understand why bodies that have to explain themselves into existence need doctors who understand without much explanation. I now know why queer and trans people of color, especially with a heavy multitude of identities, need people they can see themselves in after nervously sitting in waiting rooms. I can now see how doctors who understand cultural context matter to patients who hold off seeing doctors after interactions riddled with microaggressions. I now realize that as a child, I shouldn't have been embarrassed when my parents sought out doctors who understood their lives and needs. I should not have been upset that we had to drive an hour to see a physician and wait in a room for three hours so my mother could see someone who "understood us."

"We don't need another Dr. Khan" still rings in my ears. The collective "we" at the beginning of the assertion took me a while to unpack. I wish I had questioned this when it was said. I would hear it repeatedly throughout my last year of being friends with this person. The rejection of something I wanted, because of the stereotype of the "Desi Doctor," has haunted me. The yearning to fulfill my childhood dream has been tainted.

If my last name was different, something more white perhaps, I would be seen as a "needed" person in this field. I now feel anxiety when with my peers, wondering what they think when I express my goals. I want to be identified as South Asian Canadian, but weigh my words carefully because I fear being boxed into a stereotype. As a South Asian woman, I find that many assume I am complacent and passive. Navigating and asserting I am not just "another brown girl" who wants to be a doctor is always only a thought away. The disdain some peers have for their non-white peers is something I now easily identify. The unwritten narrative of undeserved seats being occupied by the children of immigrants in post-secondary education is one prevalent in Canada.

I sit in a classroom sometimes unfocused. My mind drifts to thoughts of how my peers perceive me and other classmates who are not white. I wonder if they believe I stole a seat that I had absolutely no right to or that I was forced into, as if I am not warranted or wanted to occupy a place or take space because there are too many faces that look like mine.

I'm at a mental crossroads. Every time I'm asked about my goals, my mind wages war and my stomach does somersaults. I explain myself to people who don't deserve an explanation simply because I am nervous about whether they truly believe this is a path I want and not one I am pressured into. I worry they are bitter because I have taken some imaginary spot from them.

I now understand that individuals who are vulnerable and ill need safe spaces in medicine; spaces where it's understood English is not a first language; spaces where physicians take the time to listen and understand needs; spaces that understand that cultural values are important and there are ways to integrate them into medicine. I plan on bringing these things into the field.

A version of this was previously published here, here and here