Pressure: A Commentary on the Black Physical Therapy Student Experience
Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes
Pressure. It’s not just a feeling, or sense of being uncomfortable or rushed. It’s also the word I’d use to describe the student experience for the minority in physical therapy school.
It's a kind of pressure born from a psychological phenomenon that causes, for example, a single black individual to feel as if they represent the entire black population. And that’s my experience.
When interacting with classmates, professors, and fellow physical therapists, you do everything you can to be the opposite of how black people are stereotypically portrayed on television, social media, and in the news. It’s code-switching, which Michael Cromartie previously wrote about on this blog.
What is a stereotypical black person, you ask?
Laura Green from Virginia Commonwealth University describes in her article titled, Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effects on Attitudes Towards African Americans,1 the origins of the stereotypes that plague black people today.
In this article you will be able to find the historical context behind why black people are stereotyped as lazy, savage, mentally incompetent, genetically inferior, culturally unevolved, thick-skinned (literally a thicker epidermis than everyone else), angry or high-tempered (specifically black women), lacking physically attractive qualities, and hypersexual.1 The challenge for decades has not only been to debunk the stereotypes that exist in the minds of non-black individuals, but also in our own minds.
Talk about pressure.
Constantly trying to convince everyone around you, including yourself, that you, the other black students in your class, and the majority of black people everywhere are nothing like the horrendous characteristics listed above. This pressure only intensifies in professional and academic settings, such as in physical therapy school, because most professional environments are minimally exposed to black people in general. That is to say, the professionals who make up these environments have likely not been exposed to enough of a minority population to fully understand that the stereotypes of our culture are extremely overrated.
Therefore, as a black professional individual, you are extremely keen on first impressions in your school or work environment, recognizing that if you represent yourself as "too black," then the responses you will generate are fear, and negative stereotypical judgement. As a response to this cascade of thinking, many black professionals have been conditioned to mask parts of their natural selves in order to avoid exclusion from professional and academic opportunities, whether in school or in a career setting.
This culturally self-generated type of pressure manifests itself in many ways.
Academically, it might be disguised as overperforming, which can include but is not limited to obsessively striving for perfect grades, or taking on more responsibility than necessary in a group project in order to avoid being viewed as lazy.
Many, including myself as a minority student, feel a certain responsibility to bow to this pressure in order to dismantle the stereotypical idea among your cohort that black people aren't intelligent, or that you're only in physical therapy school because of affirmative action, or to ensure that the staff at your clinical internship recognize you as the new physical therapy intern—not as the new physical therapy tech. It’s a constant pressure to prove ourselves worthy.
Socially, this pressure can generate an excessive inhibition of your natural personality in order to blend in with your peers. On the contrary, the opposite also can occur in which you express an exaggeration of your personality in order to "match" the stereotypical idea that your peers have of you as a means of breaking the ice. You think carefully before you speak, so that what comes out of your mouth is standard English and not black English or Ebonics like perhaps you normally would with your family or close friends.
Black students can code-switch between Ebonics and standard English, or between a native language or cultural dialect and standard English most times automatically and spontaneously, depending on our environment. We learn this skill at a very young age and it primarily serves one purpose: to represent yourself among non-black people as a nonthreatening black person. As crazy as it sounds, we do this for our own feeling of assimilation, not for anyone else's comfort.
Sometimes, the opposite phenomenon occurs and a black student may attempt to exaggerate their ethnic characteristics in order to take the edge off negative stereotypical ideation that exists in the minds of many of our peers.
For example, one may actually begin to excessively use Ebonics around their peers when they normally do not use it in their everyday interactions, to gain friendship and acceptance through laughter. Another common tactic that I have observed is the consistent interjection of "black people jokes" in conversation whenever fitting, again to comedically confirm stereotypical ideas in order to make your audience more comfortable with how they might personally feel about you.
The demographics of most physical therapy schools create an environment that can be isolating for black students.
For the 2017-2018 physical therapy program cycle, statistics from the CAPTE Aggregate Program Data fact sheet show that black students made up only 3.26% of enrolled physical therapy students in this country.2 The numbers simply don't lie.
We are conditioned as a society to want people around us with whom we can identify, relate to, and be ourselves. We naturally do this with individuals who share the same ethnicity because our similarities make it easier to connect. But when you are the only one of "your kind," you either make a decision to try to assimilate into the culture around you in order to maintain your status, or you become isolated, which isn't good for anyone.
Strangely enough, even when there is more than 1 black person in your cohort, it is not uncommon for significant hesitation to precede your natural longing to connect due to the negative perception of black unity as a threat.
Speaking on behalf of the black cohort of 4 in the University of Miami DPT Program class of 2019, we discovered that we shared the same hesitation and worry of what our classmates might think of us if we always sat together in class or hung out exclusively together outside of class. Would they think we weren't open to hanging out with anyone else? Would they think we were somehow against them just by being together? Naturally, or unnaturally rather, the 4 of us never sat all together in class.
From a black female perspective, the pressure to look the part in a professional society dominated by white American culture can also be quite overwhelming—especially, if you are rocking your natural kinky-curly hair.
Since the days of slavery, the texture and form of African hair has long been viewed as wild, dirty, unkept, and unprofessional in it's natural state. Knowing this, it takes some true grit to walk into a classroom, internship, or the keynote lecture at a professional conference with your curl-fro, twist out, or dread locks. Not only must you have the courage, but being your natural self in this environment also demands that you become a master of time management. Personally, styling my natural hair in a way that allows me to stay true to my roots and that is acceptable by professional society can take anywhere from 4 to 24 hours, or even more depending on the details.
Imagine tacking that onto the number of exams, assignments, papers, work, volunteer hours, and all other required responsibilities of being in physical therapy school. There is rarely a time that I can wake up, spend 5 minutes brushing my hair, and be ready for the day. Taming my mane to be acceptable for my environment takes time and patienceand it does not give me a pass or an excuse to be late or to perform any less than what is expected of me.
Additionally, I have learned that wearing your natural hair brings a lot of curiosity, as much as to the point of unwanted touching or "petting" of your hair in order to examine its texture and fluffiness. As a black female in a professional environment you have to learn how to navigate this territory in a way that you are able to protect your personal space without offense. You must learn how to kindly decline any unwanted touching to your hair without being portrayed as angry or too sensitive. I have yet to master this, and I cringe whenever my hair is patted, petted, or otherwise mangled without my consent after working so hard to keep my curls neat and shiny. Maybe publishing this article to the world will help my non-black peers to understand. It's okay to be curious, just ask first!
Sounds like quite a difficult experience, but it's not all bad. Under all of this pressure we are like diamonds in the rough. It may seem as though we are hard pressed on every side, but with zeal and patience we endure and come out like diamonds.
We develop excellent interpersonal skills, we are capable of adapting to any situation, we master time management, and we are diligent about remaining sensitive to cultural differences and operating with a heart of compassion for others. That type of compassion is developed from a lifetime of being misunderstood and misjudged based on the color of our skin. It is our prerogative to not replicate that experience for anyone we are blessed to work with.
As minorities representing our culture within the physical therapy profession, we are finally learning how to love, embrace, and respect ourselves for who we are, all while educating our peers on how to do the same.
Briana Harris, SPT, is a student at the University of Miami. You can connect with Briana on Facebook, Instagram, and through her blog.
APTA is committed to fostering a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our community. This is a journey—and that journey needs your perspective and support. If you have ideas to increase diversity and promote equity and inclusion, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Green L. Negative racial stereotypes and their effect on attitudes toward African-Americans. https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/links/essays/vcu.htm. Accessed February 20, 2019.
- American Physical Therapy Association, Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. CAPTE aggregate program data: 2017-2018 physical therapist education programs fact sheet. http://www.capteonline.org/uploadedFiles/CAPTEorg/About_CAPTE/Resources/Aggregate_Program_Data/AggregateProgramData_PTPrograms.pdf. Published March 12, 2018. Accessed February 20, 2019.