A Black Man in Science: The Pursuit of Truth / Kafui Dzirasa

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“Despite all of those other cues, my white coat, my scrubs, you know, somebody just looked out the window and saw danger. And even the officers who came to talk to me couldn’t override their biases that said danger.  And this is not a unique experience at all. I have friends, particularly black men who have trained at some of the best institutions in the country, that not only have these experiences with police, they have these experience with campus police as they’re walking around, like going into research labs with their ID badges on. It is like this is a shared experience.”-Kafui Dzirasa, M.D., Ph.D.

On this episode, Dr. Celine Gounder speaks with Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, a psychiatrist and NIH-funded brain researcher at Duke University, about his journey climbing to the heights of biomedical research in the United States as a first-generation immigrant and a black man. We’ll hear how the legacy of slavery continues in science and medicine, Kaf’s advice on finding mentors, and how he’s handling the pandemic as a scientist and an African American.

Celine Gounder: Hi, everyone, this is Dr. Celine Gounder, the host of “American Diagnosis.” We were working on season 4 when the coronavirus pandemic struck and since then, we’ve been busy with another show, “Epidemic.” Season 1 of “Epidemic” is all about the science of coronavirus… and how COVID is reshaping… and leading us to reinvent our world. You can find “Epidemic” wherever you listen to podcasts. Season 4 of “American Diagnosis” is coming, but in the meantime, here’s a bonus interview with a really amazing scientist, physician, and dear friend of mine: Kaf Dzirasa. I hope you enjoy it. 

Welcome back to “American Diagnosis,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. 

Kaf Dzirasa: It wasn’t just a big conference. It was like a thousand person conference. And it was the first time I had gone anywhere near speaking at one of these conferences, let alone being one of like the five or six keynotes. 

Celine Gounder: This is my friend, Kaf Dzirasa.  

Kaf Dzirasa: And I’ll never forget. I went to the hotel, and there’s this huge picture of me, like on the wall. And I’m like, so instead I’m like, Hey, look, it’s me. It’s like a huge picture of me. And, um, it’s amazing. And uh, like I want to send pictures to my mom cause I’m like, look, I’ve made it mom. I’m like a keynote at a  huge conference. And I’m  doing what people do, talking to colleagues, they’re walking around, and I’m just like excited because I’m a keynote at the conference and I’ll never forget, I was in the lobby of the hotel, and a woman comes in and she, we through the crowd, I just saw her like weaving a little bit aggressively through the crowd from like, you know, twenty feet away. And then she comes right up to me, holds out her hand and like hands me her suitcase. 

Celine Gounder: Kaf is a rock star in medicine. He’s a psychiatrist and National Institutes of Health, NIH-funded brain researcher at Duke University. He is also a public engagement fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Kaf is also a Black man, in science, in America. 

Kaf Dzirasa: My colleagues are absolutely aghast. Um, I’m aghast, right? Um, I’m the only black face in sight, um, which highlights her bias, which in some ways maps onto the type of bias with the police officers. Right. She was not used to seeing that ever. Every Black face that she’d seen was a bellman and so she just assumed that. But then secondly, it spoke to the opposite, which  was, you know, like all of the conferences I go to, don’t tend to be overpopulated by Black men. Right. So, if there were a lot of black men, then perhaps she either, she probably would have thought all of them were about men, but at least there would be something that didn’t highlight me in the crowd. Right? So I always think about these two things. The duality of these two things going on simultaneously, but as you could imagine, right? I mean, it’s this one moment you’re like, This is so amazing. I finally made it. And then you look on the other side, and this is not to discredit, you know, all of the wonderful people who do all kinds of amazing jobs, it was just hard for that to be projected onto me in that situation with my colleagues.

Celine Gounder: So in this episode, we’re going to have a conversation with Kaf about how he climbed to the heights of biomedical research in the United States as a first generation immigrant and a Black man. We’ll hear how the legacy of slavery continues in science and medicine, Kaf’s advice for getting mentors, and how he’s handling the pandemic as a scientist and an African American.  

Kaf Dzirasa, welcome to “American Diagnosis.”

I do think it’s really important for the audience to understand what a research bad-ass you are. Could you kind of put that in context for people?

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah. So I, uh, finished my PhD, uh, in my, uh, doctor philosophy at Duke University in 2007 with a concentration in neuro engineering. So that is applying engineering techniques to understand the brain and to use it, to come up with new treatments for diseases, particularly psychiatric diseases. I was the first African American to finish. And at the time when I completed my PhD in three and a half years, I basically broke the twenty-year department record to finish up. I had two more years of medical school to go after finishing my PhD. I was in a joint program. So I finished my MD and PhD, dual degrees in 2009, and immediately joined the faculty at Duke University, running my own research lab. While I was running my own research lab, I also started clinical training in psychiatry. So I was a part time, clinical trainee, while also being on the faculty at Duke running my own research lab. 

Celine Gounder: So that’s actually not normal, and actually, it’s funny because now that I think about it, I kind of did something similar. I joined, semi-joined faculty and was a fellow at the same time which is also not totally normal. But, um, that was at Hopkins. But like that’s not normal that you are a resident and the faculty member, right?

Kaf Dzirasa: Yes, none of my residency supervisors thought it was normal either so that took a little bit of time to get used to. And on the research side, things went exceptionally well, um, early on, and just to give you some, some metrics to help you appreciate that. Um, as a physician-scientist, the typical age at which people got what we call, reach independence as a scientist, so this is to get your first big, major set of seven-figure NIH grant that allows you to pursue your research interest that typically happens for physician scientists, those are people, MD-PhDs around forty-five years old. Um, I was able to do an age 34, so about 11 years ahead of schedule. And, um, additionally with that about 1% to 2% of the NIH investigators that did get this type of grant are Black so I felt into these really small concentric circles, one as an African American being able to do this, but then secondly, also doing it 11 years ahead of schedule. So it’s been a, a very fascinating and exciting research career to say the least. 

Celine Gounder: So I, I kind of want to go back to… well, a year ago now, you had written like in a night or two, a book about your entire life, which was truly amazing. Um, I kind of want to touch on some of those details cause I think that’s a really important part of your, your story. 

Kaf Dzirasa:. Yeah. You know, you joked about writing a book or in a day or two, it wasn’t that, uh, fast. It was five weeks. And so my family, my parents were born in Ghana, which is in West Africa and they grew up as neighbors. My father’s father. So my grandfather on my father’s side was interestingly enough, really heavy into politics. Um, and so Ghana had declared independence, uh, from the British empire during World War II, and he was one of the foundational members who was helping set up, uh, the government in the country. And so if you go to a lot of the monuments his…  You know, it’s the only place in the world where they’ve pronounced my last name correctly, largely due to my grandfather.

 

And, you know, I was the second of three boys born to my mother and father. And at the time, you know, my dad was a student. Uh, my mom was just getting up her nursing career in the United States. And so my dad was a janitor while simultaneously, uh, taking classes in business school and occasionally helping to teach a TA some of the classes as well. So I always say the irony of my history is that, you know,  you have this extremely, uh, brilliant and politically active family. Uh, and on the other side of it, you have medicine. And then my dad who’s teaching business classes is also cleaning toilets for his classmates and so all of that, the intersection of humility and, uh, the, the hard work and the commitment to medicine and the commitment to science and education is what form the foundation of who I have, uh, tried to be throughout the course of my life.

Celine Gounder: So you have your your family, which is this like, again, interesting sort of intersection of really, like Ghanian royalty in a  sense. And yet in the US that’s not how they’re seen.

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah. I’ve, I’ve, I’ve wrestled a lot with, um, my experience as a first generation, um, Black person in the United States. In a lot of ways, when one thinks about the impact of generations and generations and generations of slavery on the psychological state of individuals growing up in the United States, my experience was very different, right. I look back on generation and it was not a family rooted in the legacy of slavery.

Kaf Dzirasa: So I’ve wrestled with this, um, in the book, right? The idea of getting into college and really spending time looking African American history and learning about Dred Scott and Jim Crow and how that has shaped,um, my experiences, experiences moving throughout life and some of the things that I took for granted, even in high school being the only Black male or a Black person in several many of my science classes and other AP classes and not being able to fully understand the backdrop that led to those experiences until I got to college.

Celine Gounder: So you went to college at the University of Maryland, where you studied engineering. Then you decided to go to medical school. What was that like?

Kaf Dzirasa: So medical school was awful. And I had early intersections with faculty and advisory deans at Duke that sort of blended my experience of feeling like I was dumb and then all of the subtexts around race started showing up.You know, we would get slides, um, and they would teach us about diseases and things we should memorize. And I would repeatedly find that people that were sick with a certain disease type, like if they’re showing an example of what a bad disease looks like, um, some, like there were some cases in which they would always be paired with Black skin.And so it really begins to pair these things in ways that I say enforced this really complicated and really insidious history of, uh, medicine and science in this country. Right. Um, this idea that medicine and science were developed in this country in a way that paralleled the legacy of slavery. And unless active, uh, efforts were put into omit these things, these things then became ingrained in how medical students were being trained. And I experienced that. Um, and then when you hear that, there’s, you can tell that the bias is coming in by how the team then responds to the framing of the patient in that context. And again, I’m not saying that race isn’t important. It just layers on top of all of those signals that you’ve gotten early on in your medical training. 

Celine Gounder: Well, it’s so interesting what you say about, um, I mean, taking the example of syphilis and African-Americans. Obviously white people and Latino people and many others get syphilis, however, African-American people are the only group that were deliberately denied treatment in order to take some of the photos that you probably saw as part of research on syphilis. 

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah. Yeah, no, I mean, this is, so this is what I mean when I say the legacy of slavery grew along medicine in this country, right, and science, and it framed what people began to think about truth. Right? And so I was watching an interesting interview this morning, uh, where Dr. Fauci, so this is the head of, uh, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who’s been really framing how our country thinks about coronavirus, and he was talking about anti-science bias. And I was struck by one of the points he made, which he said science is truth. And I think there, it’s important to add a slight caveat to that, which is, science is the pursuit of truth. And in that pursuit of truth are those that pursue truth. And, and, and so I think with that framing, that science is the pursuit of truth, I think then we can begin to talk about this example of what you’re saying with the Tuskegee experiments, where a treatment was deliberately withheld from black people to see what the end point was of end-stage syphilis. 

So all of that in the pursuit of truth that is done in parallel, um, to all of these challenges with how, uh, Black bodies are objectified and framed in a way that then creates the bias that we see in health and medicine today. And it extends even beyond that, right? So the legacy of Tuskegee was decades ago, but you can even see that to this very day in how we’re pursuing this idea of precision medicine.

Celine Gounder: Right, so what’s precision medicine? This might seem obvious to most people… but in medicine… we’re finally figuring out that we need to tailor our approach to the patient, to their genes, their environment, their lifestyle…to figure out what will work best for them in terms of preventing and treating disease.

Kaf Dzirasa: Well, as we’re thinking about the understanding of the human body and, uh, understanding even the human genome, what was pretty clear early on, is that the genomic studies were largely done on people of European descent. So even our understanding of the basis of what it needs to do, precision medicine is based on people of European descent. And the NIH is now working hard to address that gap, uh, through what they call the“all of us” initiative and the idea of even addressing that gap then means looking at getting diverse populations and tracking their, uh, their personal genomics and their behavior and everything else and sort of updating some of these historical gaps that — “historical” meaning five years ago — these gaps that have existed in the medical and scientific framework. 

Celine Gounder: So it’s interesting that you went from Tuskegee to precision medicine. Cause there’s definitely a link there. But I think it may not be obvious to the average listener. Why are African Americans and other people of color underrepresented in these genomic studies? 

Kaf Dzirasa: The legacy of Tuskegee is known, right? It is well known. Um, and because it’s well known. One would  say, uh, in the totally rational conclusion, and I’ve heard, uh, uh, at my African American patients say, this is, we know what happened to Tuskegee. I’m not about to be your science experiment. So this is problem number one, right? Because if you want people to participate in genomic studies they have to, uh, agree to be part of a science experiment. If you want them to take the medicine, they have to agree to be part of the science experiment. And the scientific enterprise has wronged African Americans, uh, the Tuskegee example, being a particularly clear one.

 The second example of this idea of, uh, being used at part of a clinical trial and why folks might have concern about that. I think most scientists are familiar with the end point of this, but not the background. Right? The example of Henrietta Lacks. And so she was a patient at Johns Hopkins, uh, who had cancer and the clinicians and scientists at Hopkins, uh, took some of her cancer and were able to develop a cell line called Hela cells and her body was then used to make all kinds of treatments and monetize. Um, and not only was the family not compensated; they didn’t actually know that this was happening. Right? They took a part of a Black body and use it to help everybody’s health and monetize it in a way that wasn’t compensated. And so you can see how clear that intersects with a legacy of slavery. This idea that black bodies were used to fuel capital and development. Which is the intersection of the legacy of slavery and the intersect and the legacy of capitalism and how that would show up in medicine today. 

The second part of that legacy that’s extremely problematic is that if you look, the clinicians and scientists don’t always look at the patient populations they’re trying to reach. And that’s a huge problem, right? For the last 30 years, uh, the AAMC, the American association for medical colleges, uh, has sought to increase the number of particularly black folks, but especially black males going into medicine. And to this day, that number stands at about. 500 per year. And so they have totally under shot that number and haven’t made much headway, uh, in developing that.

And so this is a major problem because now you have a dearth on the clinical side, a  dearth on the scientific side, um, and then a history in which the system of medicine and science has, um, and I don’t use this word generally has abused, uh, African Americans in this country. 

Celine Gounder : Let’s take a minute to dive a little deeper into this. Why is it so important to have a doctor that looks like you?

Kaf Dzirasa:Yeah, so, studies have shown this, right? Patients tend to do better when they have shared experiences with physicians said. Shared experiences with physicians. Um, Black patients tend to have better health outcomes, uh, when they have Black doctors.

So if you know, we, as physicians assume that everyone lives in the same way and has the same set of experiences for us, we can tend to make recommendations that don’t practically match onto anything that the patient in front of us can do. And I’m not saying that the goal here is to have every physician be a Black male. I think everybody can appreciate why that wouldn’t be a problem too., right? Because then there’ll be other experiences, um, that are, that are not shared between the doctor and the patient. What I’m arguing for is a doctor population that reflects the patient population and that that’d be balanced. And so we have to focus on areas in which that gap is the biggest Black males is certainly one of them. 

Celine Gounder: So on that note, let’s talk about mentoring. It’s important for anyone, but especially in science. You’ve had some remarkable mentors, people like Tom Insel, at the time the Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, basically the top research psychiatrist in the nation. But I want to talk about your relationship with Francis Collins. He’s the Director of all of NIH. You reached out to him about how to increase the number of physician-scientists, like yourself, and especially more people of color in this area.

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah. So, NIH had gotten really interested in figuring out how to support people who were both physicians and scientists. And there was a long history of understanding the importance of this, right? Francis Collins is a physician scientist. So that’s where the human genome project came from. Um, the people who discovered the pathways that you can use to make the drugs that treat high cholesterol were physician scientists. So there’s a long history of physician scientists in this country that have done things to improve human health and the group of people who could be trained to do both was going down. So the NIH studied this issue and were thinking about how to best support people who did both. 

And the key point that I made, that the one that I think really resonated with him, was  I finally pointed out that, you know, 1% of NIH scientists are Black, which means those incredible adversity, somewhere along the pipeline, to get people to become funded scientists. And so if me as a black male could figure out how to get funded 11 years before everybody else, there’s something that I was telling him that could easily extend and extrapolate to the rest of the country, how we train physicians-scientists. So if it worked for me, lots of other people without the same barriers, it should work for them also. And so I connected with him at that point in time in helping come up with some new policies and grant mechanisms, many trips back to NIH, um, to create, funding tools to support, uh, residents. Doing research during the residency. And those have now been funded across the country to test different ways of training physician scientists, and coming up with optimal pathways. So my intersection with Francis up pretty early on was figuring out how to redo, um, a way of treating physicists scientists that have been around in the country for like 60 years. 

Kaf Dzirasa: And, and so since that time, Francis has served as a real sponsor and, um, advocate.

Celine Gounder: So, this is precisely where I want to go with this conversation, which is, um, how does the lack of sponsorship, advocacy promotion connect with why, whether it’s people of color, women, you know, whatever group it is, maybe don’t rise as much, don’t do as well in the sciences.

Kaf Dzirasa: It’s everything right. It is everything. Black scientists face, uh, incredible challenges. Um, if you look at the empirical data, they tend not to get cited as many times as the right counterparts, which then is part of the evaluation of the system and all the way up into, uh, problems with the NIH funding system, uh, with the scientific evidence suggesting even when you have a scientist that has had the same pedigree, in other words, they went to the same schools, whether it’s Duke, Harvard, Hopkins, Yale, Stanford, so same pedigree, same number rewards, same number of publications. There’s still bias in the system against them. Right. And so the challenge here is how do you access the power structure? Because the power structure necessary for your career to thrive. And part of the power structure is connecting with the ingroup of those that have power. 

There is doubt whatsoever that part of the reason my career has been able to progress is because I figured out how to have access to unique spaces of power that many people unfortunately are not giving access to. Mentors, advocates, sponsors; These are individuals that create openings to the spaces of power. It doesn’t mean that I am any more or less talented for having access to those spaces or not right to remain in those spaces I have to be talented, but one can be talented and not enter those spaces. And then you don’t, um,  have impact. I find far too often because of the legacy of slavery, some of those spaces of power are connected to wealth, which is connected to race in this country. 

Celine Gounder: Well, so how does one get access to those spaces of power. I mean, I think you and I have tapped into some of that to some degree. Some of this is how do you access? Some of it is also the culture, the language of those spaces of power, so to speak.  So how, how do you access that?

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah, I mean, I, I think my, uh, story is a good tale on how to do this, right?  So, and I, I always say, get a mentor and grow with your mentor.

Kaf Dzirasa: I think the lesson in that is people need to be much more proactive in finding mentors and convincing people that their investment in time in you is valuable. And what I mean by that is that everybody, you know, smart people and busy people their biggest resource limitation is their time. Right. So I make it really easy to mentor me really easy. Right. And I try to make it a joy to mentor me.

I always try to send my mentors notes of encouragement and understanding, right. I send my mentors, every single positive update that ever happens to me. I make them aware of it because I want them to know that their time investment in me has been good. Right. And then I don’t ask my mentors to necessarily make time for me. I make time for my mentors. When I’m, when I’m talking with students, I always give them a clear example. And I asked them, I said, you know, if any of you were in finance and you know, you just finished up business school and Warren Buffet was willing to meet with you for an hour. How far would you go for that meeting? And everybody’s like, I would basically get on a plane and fly to the opposite side of the world for a meeting for an hour with Warren Buffett, right? And that’s actually the right answer.  And so I’ve always treated all of my mentors like that and make it as easy as possible for them to invest in me. I constantly remind them of the returns on their investment. Um, and I interact with them as human beings and that for me, those three parts have been the real formula success and me being mentored. And then that stabilizes the relationship in a way that I think grow with my mentors. 

Celine Gounder: So, Kaf, we’re having this conversation a few weeks after the killing of George Floyd. A lot of people of color, and especially young Black men, have tense experiences with the police, to say the least. And I know you’re no exception, unfortunately. Could you tell us that story?

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah. So,  I was going to a friend’s house to study. And I’d come from clinical rotation. So I had on, uh, some scrubs and my white coat and I was walking towards my friend’s house and, you know, and some police approached and I like, you know, many of my generation tense up a little bit when the police approach, but I think, I thought, thank God I’m not in like the normal sweatpants and hoodie that I tend to wear every other situation I’m in, because I used to be an athlete. It’s like the most comfortable clothes I can be in. I figured, yeah, I got my scrubs and my white coat. Clearly it says Duke medical student on my ID badge. Duke is like, like less than a mile that way. I’m holding my gross anatomy book in my hand. So this is going to be pretty simple and straightforward, which it was not. Despite all of those other cues, my white coat, my scrubs, you know, somebody just looked out the window and saw danger. And even the officers who came to talk to me, couldn’t override their biases that said danger. 

Celine Gounder: So you’re wearing your white coat. You’re wearing the scrubs, you’re wearing the Danskos, which are like the shoes for people who don’t know, that doctors wear. You have your ID on and the only thing that is different is where you were standing. 

Kaf Dzirasa:Exactly. Yup. Yup. And this is not a, this is not unique experience at all. I have friends, um, particularly Black men who have trained at some of the best institutes institutions in the country that not only have these experiences with police, they have these experience with campus police, as they’re walking around, like going into research labs, like they have their ID badges on. It is like, this is a shared experience. And, and, you know, on the one hand. Yeah. And I’ll never make excuses for this at all, right? Because I think it also speaks to that greater bias, right? The, if no one ever sees a black man who’s a doctor and a scientist going into, or out of the research buildings. That’s not what your bias tells you is going on, right? So I’m not, that is not a, um, a justification for the behavior. I think that that, that highlights a second problem with society, which is that we don’t have more Black men in medical school, more black men who are scientists and more broadly and higher as the why I think these problems are systematic, right?  And systemic because the intersection of the problem, and then the response to the problem further reinforces a really great societal weight on, um, individuals like myself. 

Celine Gounder: I know how hard, on a personal level, how hard the pandemic has been for you. Can you describe a little bit about why this stretch, since March has been so stressful in terms of your work and how you are or not able to, to find stress relief in this moment?

Kaf Dzirasa: Yeah, I mean, so it, it is, um, both, uh, uh,  let’s say it is not an understatement, um, and neither irony to say that COVID has been a natural disaster, literally. And so the research labs at, um, many universities, including Duke, uh, were shut down. In the lab I have a 20-, 25-person lab And I was essentially doing all of the, uh, in lab bench experiments myself. And, you know, the way I navigate this level, I’ve pushed myself like this before I was able to do it in residency, but the way I navigate this is I also think, um, quite effectively about stress relief. And so I exercise and I run and I run around my neighborhood and I run on trails and as I was running, this is when the Ahmaud Arbery, um, story really broke and hit national news. And it was this story about just a young man who was running, um, and people thought he was running in the wrong place and essentially chased him down in their car and lynched him and killed him. 

And here I was running around, um, a neighborhood, um, all of a sudden thinking if like it was safe and you know, my, my, the women in my life also know that I run. And so they started getting worried, um, even so to the point where my mom was like, I wasn’t able to sleep knowing that, like I run for exercise in the neighborhood because this was so profound and so wrong. Atnd hen on top of that, then we all saw the tragedy, which all of us have experienced with the full weight, um, like the full excruciating weight of George Floyd and being pinned to the ground to the point that he couldn’t breathe. 

And that, It’s created, what I say is a space where people who had the luxury of looking away and not looking at these things, now were looking at it and wanting to understand it.So, its created a space where people are more comfortable talking about these unique experiences, right? The things I’m navigating now with my colleagues, I’ve been saying for years, um on panels. I would say for years in the committees that I’m in, where I’m generating policy. I’ve been saying it for years when I meet with graduate students and I’ve given talks and postdocs. I’ve always been super candid about this stuff. You could find, you know, talks online when I’m talking about the importance of diversity. Like I do this all the time. It’s just entered. Into a new space because there’s a new space that really wants to understand it as well. So the weight has personally been heavy. Uh, it feels like there’s an incredible responsibility to this time also. I just don’t know how long people are going to be interested in this. So I want to do the best I can to cause as much impact during this window. Um, but many of us already entered into this time exhausted by COVID, exhausted by social isolation, exhausted by germs everywhere and people dying and particularly Black people excessively dying from COVID. And so it’s just been a really challenging, um, and unique time for many of us. 

Celine Gounder:  So in reading your, your op-ed draft, um, there was another comment you made that maybe sad, but also I kind of  identified with where you said, I’m a Black man and the idea of making people feel uncomfortable about my presence always feels like career suicide.

Kaf Dzirasa: Yep. Yeah. I mean, so I am well aware that, um, there are a series of biases that people encounter in every aspect of their life that equates Black men with threat. Um, and so I’m aware of that and it’s, if I trigger that, then it becomes very hard for me to teach and transform and to cause impact because if a response is triggered, which then promotes a different type of learning, right? It promotes a type of learning, which says avoid threat.

Kaf Dzirasa: There’s a constant narrative that says threat, threat, threat, threat, and people respond to that. I’ll say one of the most interesting experiences that I had. I gave a talk in Beijing, uh, last, uh, late October, November, and I gave a talk and I got there and, you know, the sponsoring organization sent a car to pick me up. And so, you know, the, the limo driver’s driving, it’d been like a 13-hour flight. So I was tired and sort of halfway asleep in the back, but awake enough to see what’s going on in my surroundings and the limo driver, I could see him holding up his phone and taking selfies with me in the back of the car. So this is like, feels weird. I’m wondering if like there’s some sort of government agency tracking me. Um, and I get to the hotel and I tell the conference organizers about this and they just say, yeah, you know, they, they obviously call the limo company and like complained. 

And then they say, you know, the problem is, is like, They like, he’s probably never seen a Black person in his life. And every black person they see on TV from America is either a famous athlete or like a musician or a rock star. So he just assumed you were famous. 

Celine GOunder:[laughs]

And so for me, right here, I am in a situation where people constantly don’t experience me, but his bias was that I was like famous and awesome. And so he responded to that while in the US there’s a totally different set of biases that have been programmed. And the contrast couldn’t have been more clear. 

Celine Gounder: That’s amazing, Kaf. I think that’s a good place to end our conversation today. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk and share your story. 

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Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, and Julie Levey. 

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You can learn more about this podcast, how to engage with us on social media, and how to support the podcast at ameircandiagnosis.fm. That’s americandiagnosis.fm. Just Human Productions is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so your donations to support our podcasts are tax-deductible. Go to americandiagnosis.fm to make a donation…. we’ve got to pay Zach! So please make a donation to help us keep this going. 

I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. Thanks for listening to “American Diagnosis.”

Guests
Kafui Dzirasa Kafui Dzirasa
Host
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder