The Importance of Narrative Discussion in Anti-Racism Medical Education

Grace Eisenbiegler ’23

By Grace Eisenbiegler ’23

In the summer of 2020, Larner College of Medicine students Grace Eisenbiegler, Lud Eyasu, Akua Frimpong, Charlotte Gemes, Krisandra Kneer, Liana Mathias, and Alexa Rosenthall worked with then Interim Assistant Dean for Students Prema Menon, M.D., Ph.D., to create the Race Dialogue Series – “an elective summer discussion series to allow medical students to engage in peer-to-peer dialogue on the intersection of race and medicine.”

In a narrative reflection below, Eisenbiegler writes about the impetus for and importance of the series.

There is power in the narrative.

We see it every day on in the hospital and the clinic. It is the stories from our patients that allow us to learn who they are, what environment they live in, and who supports them. The story of a patient’s life informs how we care for them and allows us to treat the human rather than the disease.

We also use narrative to learn, with anecdotes providing the human connection that allows us to synthesize a story into a lesson. As we learn to become caregivers, healers, physicians, and advocates, we must soak up the stories of our patients as much as we absorb facts, data, and research.

Theory, doctrine, and scientific rigor are the foundation upon which medical education resides. The unabating objectivity of fact is what allows medical professionals to become experts and is the basis of evidence-based medicine. But narrative, and all its messy subjectivity and relativism, bring doctrine into reality. Without connecting concepts to people, how are we ever to change our approach or disposition?

The push for medical students to better understand how racism is embedded in modern medicine is timely and appropriate. However, the inclination of many medical schools to codify this study into didactics may be misguided.

We certainly must sit down to learn our history. But the consumptive nature of this format only feeds into the academic mindset that one can study their way out of a problem, force-feeding the mind, absolving the individual of critical thinking. Additionally, this presumes that one can learn all there is to know and “arrive” at an anti-racist way of being. We know this is false and that anti-racism “boot camps” perpetuate this.

Our team created a six-week discussion series for medical students to engage in topics of race and racism in medicine, the “Race Dialogues.” We sought to educate ourselves and provide space for personal reflection, but also to create room for the telling of stories, for the lived experiences of those in our community. Bringing the personal into the discussion, while initially uncomfortable, allowed for more fruitful and honest discourse.

Much of the trepidation about saying the “wrong thing” was offset by the deeper connection to others. Part of this practice also became allowing the group to shift the narrative, moving the conversation to something “off topic” or expressing a contradictory view. Tolerance for the organic nature and natural back-and-forth of the conversation became necessary and appropriate.

But still, the narrative format of anti-racism open discussion is clearly rife with flaws.

One must ask – Who is in the room? Who is represented in this conversation? Is this a “safe space” or a “brave space?” How much are individuals challenged? What is disagreement and what is disrespect? Is there a tokenization of those with minority identities? How much minority tax are we inducing? Are new ideas truly welcome here or is this space merely an echo chamber? I asked myself many times what my role as a white woman was in this conversation. As a group organizer, how often was my own narrative unintentionally centered? Even when assuming the role of a listener, how does my body take up space? How do I approach in solidarity?

Our sessions often ended with more questions than answers and true feelings of discomfort. But, in our view, those are signs of growth.

Our experience showed that narrative deserves a place in anti-racism medical education, for it challenges us to rest in ambiguity and sets up the expectation of lifelong learning.

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