Speaking from personal experience, one issue that Black people face in this country is feeling unseen. Going unnoticed. Being unrecognized. Invisible. And this is particularly evident in the health care world. The numbers of Black men and women in white coats are not only dwindling, but their rarity is often overlooked, and, frankly, they’re accomplishments are not praised enough.
Mitchell Prins (14) set out to change that in his circle of influence. While in his last year of medical school at Loma Linda University, he — and his classmate and co-collaborator Hazel Ezeribe — used their artistic ability to create Voices of the 5%, an art exhibit that celebrates current and future Black physicians. The exhibit debuted on their campus for Black History Month.
“The thing that we wanted to focus on is that people need to know what it’s like to be Black and in medicine,” Prins, who’s studying internal medicine, said. “I’m not coming from this culture where there’s little representation of you in this field. I’m not coming from that kind of experience. So to get a glimpse into the pressure that those individuals feel when they do come into this setting was very moving and very humbling.”
All 22 subjects could’ve simply donned their white coats, filed through and posed on a basic backdrop, but Prins — who was the photographer for the project — had a vision that stretched beyond that. “A number of these individuals have these expectations when they go into medicine of a certain level of professionalism they need to bring, a certain level of their personality and their story almost suddenly needs to be repressed in order to be ‘professional’ in these environments,” Prins explained. “We wanted to highlight the opposite of that, so we encouraged them to wear their own unique style.”
The striking photos are physical representations of Black joy. The students’ melanin basks in the sun as they’re positioned in front of brightly-colored textiles, vibrant fabrics, and crinkled white sheets draped on a clothesline between fruit trees. The different textures, styles, and colors of Black hair are highlighted. Captures of ear-to-ear smiles, joyous laughter, and eye-catching flower crowns make for the recognizable radiance to ooze out of the photography. Prins says that many of the medical students were nervous and shy; they were showing off their typically untapped creative side. But there’s no way to tell from the photos. The nerves soon melted away, and the final results are reminiscent of freedom.
The other layer of the exhibit is the students’ own words that accompany their photos, a piece that was very important to both Prins and Ezeribe. The sentimental quotes and genuine pieces of each students’ story hang on the campus’ Wong Kerlee Conference Center’s walls, encompassing the true power of seeing the whole picture. “People, when they see the photos, you can kind of have your own interpretation of it — which I love. I love people looking into the photo, trying to examine the emotions of the person. But for us, the real importance is when people go, they need to see the photo, and they need to read the story because they are integral to each other,” Prins said. “And that’s a lot of the comments we’ve gotten from people: it would not be the same one without the other.”
The stories are moving and deeply rooted in showing the Black experience as a medical student or an already practicing doctor. Some are stories of upsetting truths, and others tell of pain that comes from the fear of disappointing a community that is so invested in your future, how having to retake a class feels like letting everyone down.
One woman, who was featured, shared an experience during an oral Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE), a training of physical exams before actually going into the hospital. “What’s wrong with her gums?” a fellow classmate scoffed, referring to the pigmentation of her gum tissue being darker than their own. There was nothing wrong, and it turned into a teaching moment for the class at the Black student’s expense.
Another student expressed how after he cut his dreadlocks, colleagues asked if he did it to “look more professional.” “No,” he responded. “I cut my dreads because I wanted to cut my dreads. There’s nothing wrong with my hair.”
The stories are moving and deeply rooted in showing the Black experience as a medical student or an already practicing doctor.
Prins was adamant about showing off the faces of this future generation of doctors. They will help grow the dismal 5% of medical professionals who are Black, despite Black people making up about 13% of the U.S. population. The Journal of General Internal Medicine states that there’s better medication adherence for African Americans when their physician is their race, and even Black babies have higher survival rates if their pediatrician is Black.
“We know that physicians of color are communicating with their patients of color much better than white doctors are, which is sad,” said Prins. “White physicians should be good at communicating with those patients, too, but there’s a long history of distrust in the medical system because of the racial inequalities in health care. So it’s important to hear the stories of these amazingly talented and high-achieving people at Loma Linda. But on a wider scale, we need to do better in terms of our numbers of Black physicians… because they’re the ones that are making an impact with people of color.”
This beautiful display of Black excellence sprouted from the turmoil of 2020. “I think there’s this tendency toward complacency after some of these really big events happen in our country that, ‘Yeah, we are all there! We’re muted! We posted on social media!’ But then it kind of retired after that in terms of people advocating for communities of color,” Prins said. What started in June as a labor of love is now an exhibit that has deeply moved fellow students, faculty, and even the president of the university. “Those conversations can happen again now because people are remembering what just happened in our country — remembering the reality of the health care system and the racial inequalities that exist within it. And let’s continue to have these conversations and move forward.”
It’s nice to feel seen. Noticed. Recognized. Visible. The impact of this project will be displayed permanently around the Loma Linda campus, and the stories of these students will be told and retold forever.
Explore More: PLNU’s Center for Justice & Reconciliation, led by CJR Faculty Fellow Dr. Sharon Smith, is coordinating a project to improve access to science careers for students of color. “We are committed to understanding why more BIPOC students do not pursue nursing degrees, and other science careers, at PLNU. Our goal is to open up new avenues that support minority students who want a career in the sciences.” For more information about our work, please contact Dr. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org