How I Ended up in the “Whitest Profession”… and Why I'm Not Going Anywhere
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
“My movement is like the Civil Rights--I’m Ralph David Abernathy, so call my lady Rosa Parks”—CyHi The Prynce
As a kid, my mom swore by a “brown magic marker”. You could always find one stashed in any drawer around our house—ready to color anything that was lacking in melanin. My parents strived to make sure that I always saw people who looked like me in all spaces. Black doctor. Black dentist. Black pastor. Black hairdresser. Black tennis instructor. Black camp. And if a Black version couldn’t be found, my mom created her own with her trusty “brown magic marker.” Barbie dolls, shirts, greeting cards, Santa Clause faces. Nothing was spared of the “brown magic marker”.
At times, I must admit it was embarrassing. I mean, who really wanted to be the one to show off their brown sharpie-colored Barbie at a sleepover (sadly, this was before Black Barbies became widespread)? But as I ventured into the real world—a world where very few people were advocating for brown faces—that embarrassment evolved into understanding, and that understanding instilled pride.
I remember the day I decided I wanted to be a Speech-Language Pathologist. I had just finished my freshman year at the illustrious Spelman College—the #1 ranked Historically Black College and University in the country (well, it's true *Kanye shrug*). And after struggling through two semesters of pre-med coursework—calculus, biology, chemistry *gag*—I quickly decided medical school wasn’t for me after all. I met with the head of almost every department, took more variations of Myers-Briggs than you could imagine, and practically established a second home in the Career Planning Office, until one day, all signs led me to “Speech-Language Pathologist”. The problem was I had never even heard of a Speech-Language Pathologist, and I definitely had never met one. Every time I mentioned “Speech-Language Pathologist” people just stared at me blankly (even my parents). As a psychology major at a small liberal arts college, I knew if I wanted to get into this profession, I was going to be on my own. I scoured the internet for information, reached out to my professors for resources, cross-registered at a large university nearby to get a few pre-requisite courses, and sent out a ton of cold emails requesting to shadow Speech-Language Pathologists in the Atlanta area. Y’all, I was doing the damn thing. By senior year, I not only felt like I had my foot in the door, but I had practically knocked it down *brushes off shoulder*. I had been accepted to one of the top Speech Pathology programs in the country with a full ride (and, yes, it was merit-based…for that hater in the back who always asks).
So after college, I packed up my stuff, left the Black mecca of Atlanta, said ‘so long’ to the birthplace of #blackgirlmagic, and took my talents out to…Indiana. Yes, you read that right. I moved to Indiana. I spent the next three years of my life literally in the middle of a cornfield. I was the only Black person in my graduate program and one of just a handful of Black people in the whole town—but I had prepared myself for this. I have absolutely no regrets about my graduate school choice, and while there, I formed an amazingly strong village of support from friends, peers, and faculty members.
However, following graduate school, I was NOT at all prepared for the isolation I would experience in the workplace being one of the mere 3.5% of Black people in the field of Speech Pathology. Naively, I didn’t realize that the lack of diversity in graduate school was a microcosm for the rest of my professional career.
In 2013, just as I was starting my second year of graduate school, Atlantic published an article naming Speech Pathology #3 on its list of “whitest professions”—coming in at 94% White. Honestly, I hadn’t needed an article to tell me this—it had been my reality for the last year—but I decided to conduct my own search in hopes of finding different statistics. With this newfound information, I proactively attended state and national conventions—seeking a sense of community, belonging, and mentorship from other SLPs of color--scanning the rooms for someone (anyone) who looked like me until eventually my efforts became futile. Everywhere I went, it was pretty much a guarantee that I would be the only brown face in the crowd. While I was getting a top-notch education, had a 4.0 GPA, and knew I had great potential to become a successful medical Speech-Language Pathologist, I still felt so discouraged. It was an extremely isolating feeling to not see yourself reflected in your working environment. I had the clinical skills under my belt, but struggled with the biases and politics of the professional world. I was navigating blindly in a space that I felt wasn’t created for me.
I then sought out Black SLP organizations and programs like NBASLH (National Black Association for Speech Language and Hearing), ASHA STEP (Students to Empowered Professional), ASHA MSLP (Minority Student Leadership Program), and Black SLP Facebook groups and meet-ups. While I found solace in these groups and met SLP friends for a lifetime, I quickly realized the shortage of brown faces is even scarcer for medical SLPs. At times, feeling like even more of an outcast as my school-based SLP friends chatted about caseloads, IEPs, phonological processes, and latest kiddo games.
It’s now 2019, 6 years after the publication of the Atlantic article, and the demographics for our field are holding relatively steady--with 3.6% of SLP identifying as Black or African American. Unfortunately, the reality remains that the number of Black SLPs is marginal. And, if I had to make an educated guess, the number of Black SLPs in the medical field is minute. For the last 4 years as an acute care Speech-Language Pathologist, I have worked at several hospitals in several states across the country, and it’s the same sad story. It’s the elephant in the room. A dangerous pattern that isn’t being talked about enough. Eventually, everyone comes through hospital doors, yet our field is essentially comprised of a homogenous group of professionals charged with the responsibility of competently serving a diverse group of patients and families at their most vulnerable times. And we know that when diversity and cultural competence is lacking, clinical competence is inevitably lacking.
And despite living in the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S., I have yet to meet a Black medical Speech Pathologist with similar clinical skills and career goals. As an early career professional, I have worked hard, been deliberate about my path, and relatively speaking, have been successful. However, there are days when the isolation has broken me down. When the microaggressions and words of bias have made me cry. Days when I felt like I chose the wrong profession. I’ve for sure faced my share of opposition along the way. But if my parents taught me anything, it’s that there is always space for my brown face--even if I have to make it for myself. I know that some people may find my presence too unconventional, conspicuous, or intimidating, but when you look at me, you can’t deny that I’m here and making my mark.
So, to everyone who discredited my skills,
To everyone who TRIED to trip up this “uppity black girl” along the way (you tried it),
To everyone who has mistaken me for housekeeping/CNA/patient transporter/cafeteria worker/etc. (when it clearly reads “Speech Pathologist” on my name badge),
To that doctor who always says he “must have the wrong office” every time I open the office door,
To all the people who have attempted to attack my character and stunt my professional growth,
To every Black parent who has approached me to tell me “My daughter wants to be an SLP, but she doesn’t know where to start”,
To the Black case manager, who asked me if I would help her daughter with the application process for SLP graduate programs,
To that Black Respiratory Therapist who pulled me to the side in the hallway and told me he was so glad to see me because his daughter wants to be an SLP “but she wanted to know why there are no black SLPs” and he didn’t have an answer for her,
For the Black SLPs who want to work in the medical setting and have asked me to help them prep for an interview, because unfortunately, I’m probably the only person they know in the medical setting who they can approach for mentorship,
To everyone who supported my dreams, acknowledged my skills, saw the best in me, and gave me a chance to prove myself when others said ‘no’,
This post is for you.
In the words of civil rights activist and Spelman College Alumna, Marian Wright Edelman, "You cannot be what you cannot see."
This why I’m here--BOLDLY marking up space in the “whitest profession”.
And this is why I’m not going anywhere--I've earned my spot--so you can get used to me.