The future can look different and change is achievable

Dr Renee Burnett shares her personal experiences and vision for the future as part of #BlackHistoryMonth.

As a black female immigrant who is a paediatrician my position is both one of challenge and privilege. Coming from a family of strong-willed Jamaican women, there was never any doubt in my mind that I could achieve anything I desired.

My mother is a paediatrician and professor; my aunt a nurse who was part of the Windrush generation. I found myself surrounded by role models in addition to academic advice, financial support and resilience against negativity and bias. Later in my professional career, I came to understand that this was an exception—not the norm. 

My journey to where I am today wasn’t easy. It required challenging deep-seated systemic bias, fighting for my seat in a room that often made me feel like I didn’t belong. I frequently think if it was so hard for someone like me who had such a strong foundation and backing, how much harder is it for others with less? 

I’ve often found myself looking around at my peers contemplating how BAME and immigrant groups are largely underrepresented, particularly in positions of management and high academia.

Recent studies have shown that you can be discriminated against on the basis of your name alone before you even walk through the door for an interview! Why is the gap in aspiration, attainment and achievement so vast? And, more pertinent is, how do we do better for the next generation? 

The future can look different and change is achievable. I believe it is possible to show the children we care for that the system can change to accept diversity and difference.

An equally upsetting realisation is that not only is academic or career attainment harder within the BAME and immigrant communities but so too are the negative effects of the current times. The risk of infection and death from COVID in these groups are markedly higher, as is the negative impact from being below the poverty line through loss of earning and livelihood. 

All aspects of child health and futures are incumbent on us as all as paediatricians. We should be active advocates for levelling of the playing field. Education, accommodation, nutrition, access to health care and discrimination based on race, religious beliefs or socioeconomic status have an enormous impact on a child’s future. Like in any pathology, it’s simply not enough for the treatment of every case to be the same; some require more input and attention.

I often tell my patients and parents that I will never claim to have all the answers but I’m here to help to the best of my abilities. We must demand equity, acknowledging and embracing diversity both individually and as a professional body. We should be ready to dive into the complex conversations that make us uncomfortable and strive for open dialogue. We need to be prepared to challenge long-held beliefs within external communities and within ourselves. There’s a complex interplay of race, privilege and both conscious and unconscious bias at the heart of so many issues.

The future can look different and change is achievable. I believe it is possible to show the children we care for that the system can change to accept diversity and difference. 

As a black female immigrant paediatrician, I’m humbled by what my achievements mean both to me and to entire generations before and after me. My vision for the future is that every child, those who look like me and those who don’t, know that it’s possible to achieve at the highest echelons and to truly believe that you can be anything you want to be, knowing that we as the RCPCH are here to help make that possible.