Raised right here in Lansing, Dr. Alexa Canady became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the US. But that didn’t stop her from being mistaken for hospital housekeeping staff.
Once, that happened in front of another African American woman doctor, a pediatrician named Dr. Anita Moncrease. What happened next was a teachable moment that the two women are sharing with us, starting with Dr. Moncrease.
Moncrease: So I was examining the baby when Dr. Canady appeared in the door, and Dr. Canady came in and she said 'hello.' I said 'hello' and the family said 'hello', but the family went on to say ‘would you mind emptying the trash’ because the trash can was overflowing. And I was shocked!
Canady: By then I’m a grown up person. I’ve been insulted so many times it doesn’t matter to me, and I understand whose problem it is, and it’s not mine nor do I wish to make it mine.
Moncrease: All they saw was the huge presence of a black woman coming in in scrubs and they assumed that was housekeeping.
Canady: My mother taught us that, that that’s their problem, it’s not your problem, don't let them make their problem your problem.”
Moncrease: So, Dr. Canady proceeded to wash her hands and said 'no problem I’ll be happy to,’ then she introduced herself ‘I’m Dr. Canady, I’m the one who operated on your daughter last night,’ and you should have seen the family’s face at this point.
Canady: If I’m insulted I’ve given you a power over me which I don’t intend to give you. So if you make that mistake, that’s your problem not my problem, and it doesn’t really affect me unless I let it.
Moncrease: I was smiling on the outside and smiling on the inside at what had just happened.
Canady: I got it from my parents, the limit of what you can do is set by you and not by others.
Moncrease: The family was apologetic, you know, they didn’t realize that she was the neurosurgeon and she was like ‘no problem.' Then she asked was there any more questions that the family had, and she reached down and she picked up the trash, the plastic bag and walked out the room with it.
Canady: I used to tell my residents and they used to laugh, but I said to respect to people who do the work in a hospital; because the hospital can function much more easily without a neurosurgeon than it can without housekeeping.
Moncrease: That was so amazing to me there was so many teachable lessons in that for me that I take with me today. Number one don’t assume who anybody is based on their appearance. Number two Dr. Canady was a neurosurgeon. But she didn’t have any problems being housekeeper either, because no matter what you are in life, you know, you need to be respected for it. So that taught me you know that people are going to make assumptions about me and I don’t need to be angry or upset if they don’t assume that I'm a Dr., if they assume I’m something else. Number three, she didn’t make the parents feel bad or feel worse than they'd already done about the assumption that they made. She left them with the experience that they could go home and share with their family what had happened and they could share it in such as positive way that their families wouldn’t make the same assumptions in the future.
Dr. Anita Moncrease, is a retired pediatrician. Dr. Canady, who in 1981, became America’s first black woman neurosurgeon, is also retired.