Bioethics Blogs

When a doctor calls a patient a racial slur, who is hurt?

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Last week Lexi Carter, a black woman from Tennessee had an experience that so many other black people have had, a racially charged visit with a doctor. When Carter walked into her doctor’s office, Dr. James Turner greeted her with “Hi Aunt Jemima.” During the visit, he proceeded to call her Aunt Jemima more than once. Carter’s encounter with Dr. Turner is problematic for many reasons: 1. The term “Aunt Jemima,” which is the name of a popular syrup and pancake mix whose packaging depicts the face of a black woman, has a long history of racism dating back to the late 1800s; 2. Dr. Turner made these remarks in front a physician assistant trainee and a student who are still learning about the field of medicine; 3. After admitting to making the remark, Dr. Turner said that the term “was not intended to show disrespect for Ms. Carter,” calling it a “misspoken blunder.”

Aunt Jemima is a reflection of the “mammy” archetype that can be found in films, television shows, and literature (e.g. Calpurnia in “To Kill a Mocking bird” or Mammie in “Gone with the Wind”). The archetype depicts a larger black woman who is usually wearing an apron over a tattered dress, her hair is usually tied up with a scarf of some sort (typical of black slaves who tied their hair up to help protect from lice). The mammie character is also typically responsible for caring for the homes and children of white slave owners (i.e. house slaves), and who speaks using vernacular typical of uneducated black slaves, a vernacular that is usually mocked for being simple and unrefined unlike that of the vernacular of white people.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.