By Anwar Osborne
Here is a guy walking down the street in Atlanta. He’s black and wearing what some might call a “thug” uniform: a zip-hooded sweatshirt, jeans, a baseball cap on backwards, and Michael Jordan basketball shoes.
But that man is me, and I’m on my way to work, a physician in an urban hospital emergency department. I’m a doctor, and I dress like a “thug.”
Michael Dunn, a white Floridian, said he hated “thug music” before shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager. Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman had the word “thug” uttered about him many times before the Super Bowl, and Jonathan Ferrell got shot instead of getting help after a car crash.
These cases are striking to me because I live in a 6-foot 1-inch, 210-pound black body, but also because I spend the majority of my waking hours trying to keep people alive. Sometimes it’s by delivering patient care, signing charts in my office, attending a lecture or fleshing out research in a small group.
Studies show patients prefer their doctor to wear a white coat and more formal attire (and to a lesser extent, scrubs). Hence, I wear a white coat with scrubs or sometimes slacks and a shirt when seeing patients in the emergency department.
However, outside of the 25 or so hours weekly that I see patients, there are 55 hours in which I perform one of my many other non-clinical responsibilities, such as managing quality improvement projects and reviewing charts. In their non-clinical hours, my white colleagues sometimes opt for wearing corduroys, jeans or even hoodies like me. But I prefer some sort of head cover over my bare head — and, of course, Jordans.
My colleagues sometimes react to my non-clinical work attire with awkward comments and half jokes: “Wow! I thought you were a patient,” or, “I was about to call security.” Or they’ll tell me I’m the only person who wears hoodies to work, which is untrue.
Wherever we work, African-Americans constantly wrestle with these sartorial decisions because clothes can often amplify preconceived notions about the wearer. Dartmouth College cognitive scientist Jonathan Freeman demonstrated that high-status attire can cause people to initially assume the wearer is white. Sometimes, these assumptions can have deadly consequences.
Geraldo Rivera insisted that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he had not worn “thug wear.” But that didn’t help Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, two young black people who sought help after traffic accidents and were instead shot dead.
Author Brent Staples famously suggested in 1986 that black males may have to operate by different rules in public spaces. But we all have to do our part to challenge these stereotypes. Those of us trying to advance our careers must recognize that dressing like a “thug” is less about hoodies and Jordans and more about a racial double standard in public spaces. No amount of degrees or bow ties can protect us from this prejudice. It’s not about the clothes or music, but about who we assume black men are.
Ironically, though, there is a strong likelihood that this guy walking behind you in “thug wear” could save your life.
Anwar Osborne, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician in Atlanta and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project at Emory University.