“Assimilationism is the act of encouraging minority cultural groups to be similar to larger cultural groups.”
This word is one I’ve only learned in the past year or so, but I’m glad I did because I realised that it is something that I experience in a few different ways. I’m going to describe a couple here.
This is usually expressed in the idea that Queer people would have such an easier time of things if they just behaved like all the “normal” people. The idea that Pride would be a lot easier for people to “deal with” if it wasn’t full of people dressed and acting outrageously. Or when LGBT campaigns put forward the idea that the mainstream should accept us because “hey, we’re just like you!” – we want to get married, have kids, serve in the army, all the things you straight people want!”
Of course having equal access to marriage, adoption/fertility treatment + military service is important, but this kind of campaigning erases the experiences of Queer people who have no interest whatsoever in being “just like a straight person”.
2. Assimilationism in medical culture
Medicine is *extremely* hierarchical. A professional hierarchy is of course necessary to some extent – for newly graduated doctors to have the same level of responsibility as those who have been in the job 20 years would be dangerous and stressful for everyone. But the social hierarchy that we have really grates on me.
Doctors don’t just have a hierarchy within our teams, but some specialities in medicine have a culture of superiority over others. There are stereotypes for most specialities – anaesthetists just sit around all day, orthopaedic surgeons are knuckle-dragging morons, all surgeons lack empathy, etc. I think that patient safety and care quality would also be helped if we stopped trying to say that people working in other specialities are idiots! Do I sound like a hopeless hippy when I wonder why we all can’t respect each others’ expertise, the medical training we all have in common, and do our best to get along?
I’m really glad to find that recent reviews of the NHS have suggested that a less hierarchical workplace would be good for patient safety – the idea being that since junior doctors rotate round into different teams every few months, we bring a fresh perspective to the established practices in a workplace. We are uniquely placed to spread good ideas across different workplaces and notice when a team’s standards of care have drifted. I have a natural inclination to challenge lazy thinking, poor practice, stereotyping etc. I am still working on my skills at doing this without rubbing people up the wrong way – sometimes when I’ve asked someone questions about why they did something the way they did (consultants included) it has gone well, but other times it hasn’t and I’m trying my best to learn from my experiences. Having some of my views backed up by a prestigious review of health care in the UK strengthens my conviction that I don’t have to be assimilated into the medical social hierarchy to be a good doctor.
Of course, the heteronormative assimilation I experience in mainstream society is also present in medicine. My experience of this isn’t helped by the fact that I feel my queerness and my disability make me vulnerable socially, and so at work I tend to be more reserved and less vocal about my personal life than my more “normal” colleagues get to be. I think takes me longer to feel “safe” in a “mainstream” social group than it does with people who I know understand certain things about me, like what polyamory is, the fact that people have pronoun preferences, what pansexual means etc.
Since starting entering the medical profession I’ve begun to explore the boundaries of what is considered a “professional” or an “unprofessional” appearance for a doctor – standards which I believe are based in the medical profession’s origins as a profession run by rich white men. In my first job a nurse complained to my supervisor that she felt that my ear cartilage piercings were unprofessional. To his credit my supervisor told me that it was my body and what I put in it was nobody’s business but mine, but that I might want to think about how my piercings affected how people saw me. Happily I was able to tell him I hope that my appearance helps people to see that I’m the kind of person I am AND a doctor at the same time, which will hopefully challenge people’s stereotypes of what kinds of people get to be doctors. After a few months my supervisor let me know that I’d changed his mind, and that he admired me for sticking to my guns.
I’ve also tried having unnaturally coloured hair at work (I’m not the only hospital worker I’ve seen with pink hair, just the only doctor) which has similarly gone quite well and I’ve received compliments from some medical colleagues which has been great. I’ve also started using the phrase “one of my boyfriends” when the topic comes up, which has been quite interesting – some people don’t react in the slightest which does make me wonder if their brain has censored out my words, like a Derren Brown mind trick. Each further step I take helps me to feel more secure in being myself at work, which is considerably more comfortable than feeling that I have to be closeted all the time.
Hopefully though the effects of the decisions I make on how to present myself at work, won’t just have the effect of making it a more comfortable place for me to be, but will help other people to feel that they can be themselves – both hospital workers and patients. I believe that a diverse population is best served by a diverse population of healthcare workers. And I also believe in “being the change you wish to see”. This stuff is important to me, which is why I do it, and why I write about it. I’m really interested to hear about other people’s experiences of challenging workplace cultures, where the desire to do so comes from, your successes and times when things went less well. Leave your comments below!