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Let me throw out a couple numbers: 3.4% and 1%.
No, those aren't the odds of winning the lottery. According to datausa.io, that's the percentage of doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degrees earned by African Americans (3.4%), and African American males specifically, (1%) in 2016.
As a black male working toward a DPT degree, I didn't need those stats to know that I'm in the minority. In my physical therapy school at the University of Miami, I am 1 of only 4 black students, and the only black male.
That's a big difference from my undergrad experience at Stillman College, a historically black college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where more than 90% of my classmates were black. There, I blended in. Now, I stick out—an apple among oranges.
My high school experience was much the same, and that prepared me for what I'm facing now.
Going into my physical therapy school journey, I knew that I would have to be willing to try new things to connect with my peers. I knew that even though I share the same race with only a few of my classmates, that sometimes we would still struggle to connect because we come from different life experiences and backgrounds. And I knew that even though my fellow black classmates and I would look out for one another, we would have to do so in moderation, so as not to give off the vibe that we had an "us against the world" mentality.
I also knew that I would have to be prepard to "code-switch" in order to succeed.
Code-switching is a term that refers to changing one's language or language style based on one's environment. Almost everyone uses code-switching to some degree—most of us speak a certain way at home among family and friends that's different from what we use at school or work. Black people do this a lot.
In physical therapy school, I code-switch all the time. I do this because I know that my "Black Boy Joy" isn't accepted in a lot of spaces that are critical for my success, and so I have to dilute it to avoid making those around me uncomfortable.
For example, after I felt that I was beginning to be accepted by classmates and professors, I decided to grow my hair out and try out cornrows because I always wanted them. However, I soon knew that when the next conference came up I would need to get rid of them because I would meet potential future employers, and that hairstyle wouldn't increase my odds of getting a job.
Code-switching is an essential skill that helps us be accepted in society. But the need to code-switch can be frustrating and unfair.
Like many minorities, I not only feel a pressure to represent myself in a good light, I often feel as if I'm representing my entire race. I know that my actions will affect how people judge others who look like me. It's an unfortunate situation to be in, but it's a reality that many black people learn at a young age.
Because I want to be accepted as an individual, I do my best to be as open-minded to my classmates as I hope they will be toward me. I often jokingly tell them, "We don't do that where I'm from," right before I usually say, "Okay, I'm down."
This has given me the opportunity to try things I might have never done if I wasn't an apple among oranges. (Jumping off boats in the middle of the ocean off the coast of Florida, comes to mind.) Those new experiences are about more than just fitting in. They've made me more well-rounded, even when I'm code-switching.
It hasn't always been easy.
Going to physical therapy conferences and quickly noticing how rarely I encountered other people who looked like me made me wonder if I could be one of the select few black males to succeed in this field. It made me second-guess my purpose and my career path, particularly during my first semester of physical therapy school when I first encountered the intense workload and pressure to pass anatomy. It took many encouraging calls and text messages from parents, family, and friends to keep me going.
My friends and family emphasized that I couldn't let being a minority intimidate me. If anything, I had to use that as motivation to prove to myself and the world that I belong in this field and that black people belong in this field—that we are just as smart and capable as anyone else.
I knew that I had to be confident in my abilties and my potential, and when I wasn't confident I had to remind myself that whatever I didn't know yet, I would know eventually.
James Baldwin said, "I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all."
My journey continues. When I graduate, I know that I will be among a small number of African American male physical therapists in the American health care system. But I also know that I am much more than that.
Michael Cromartie, SPT, is a student at the University of Miami. Connect with Michael on Twitter at @MikeCroSPT.