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The Politics of Correctness

On paper, most people assume that I am not from the United States.  My first, middle, and last names are Nigerian in origin but my father is from Nigeria, West Africa and my mother was from Michigan where I was born. When people meet me, I often get, “Where are you from?” I don’t have a Nigerian accent, I have been told that I have a typical Southern drawl of lifelong home of Alabama, and I don’t sound like I am from the Michigan’s Midwest. One thing that people do not have to ask me is my ethnicity. While writing a history and physical note (H & P), a crucial piece of information is the ethnicity of the patient. When presenting a patient’s case to attending physicians, one must begin with, “A 32-year-old African-American female” or a “65-year-old Caucasian male.”

Throughout Basic Sciences and clinical training, we were taught that certain illnesses predominant amongst certain ethnic populations. What is the proper way to ask a patient’s ethnicity when uncertainty exists? The melting pot of American culture contains numerous ethnicities and culture backgrounds. As I continue to ponder on the right approach to this sensitive topic, I am reminded of the commercial with the owl and the little boy and the Tootsie Pop. How do you ask a patient their ethnicity without being offensive? In the commercial, after the little boy posed his question to the wise old owl, the phrase that will suffice for my current dilemma is “The world may never know.”

by Chinwe Okeke, Class of 2011