Stopping the Pain of Prejudice: The Veterinary Profession Needs to Heal Itself of Biased Behaviors

The veterinary profession prides itself on addressing the health and welfare needs of its patients but that’s not always the case with employees. Professionals we talked with pointed out the impacts of these experiences and how change is overdue.

by Maureen Blaney Flietner

MANY IN THE VETERINARY-SERVICES PROFESSION HAVE LONG been subjected to prejudices based on name, appearance, and more.

Internalizing the Stress

While these types of offensive and racist behaviors have been written about and talked about for years, less often explored are the impacts on the people who experience them.

“Most of the time, you feel powerless. It’s a lot of passive-aggressiveness that you deal with on a daily basis. A lot of making excuses for other people’s nasty behavior. It’s hard,” explained Cherese Sullivan, DVM, who is Black. She said she first experienced prejudice in the profession as a technician before going to veterinary college. She is now a relief practice veterinarian at the LGBTQIA+-friendly Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital in Houston, Texas.

Cherese Sullivan, DVM, relief veterinarian with Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital in Houston, Texas

Christina V. Tran, DVM, associate professor and Clinical Relations Lead Veterinarian at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine

Jen Brandt, LISW-S, PhD, director of Wellbeing, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiatives for the AVMA

Marie Sato Quicksall, DVM, CVA, associate veterinarian at Day Road Animal Hospital, Bainbridge Island, Washington

“A lot of the stuff is difficult to quantify,” Sullivan said. “It’s much easier if someone gets in your face and calls you a n***** and then you can just say, ‘Hey, this obviously happened to me and there are witnesses.’ But when it’s a lot of microaggressions and hearsay, it’s harder to quantify. It can be very difficult to put a finger on it and call it out.”

Marie Sato Quicksall, DVM, CVA, associate veterinarian at Day Road Animal Hospital, Bainbridge Island, Washington, offers similar thoughts. She is the child of a Japanese father and White American mother who moved to the United States when she was a toddler.

“It can be tiring and stressful,” Quicksall said. “I have had to weigh when and if I say anything because I know there is no one else there who has had the direct experiences of racism that I have. I know from other experiences that I may not be taken seriously, may be accused of making a ‘big deal about nothing,’ or may even be retaliated against. I also feel the pressure of saying something that no one else will say.”

Now at a practice where she is not the only BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) team member, Quicksall says, “I feel less pressure to be that voice.”

Christina V. Tran, DVM, a first-generation Filipino-American raised in the south suburbs of Chicago, said it is “definitely upsetting” to know that someone passes judgment on her based not on ability but on her race and ethnicity. Earlier in her career when she encountered racism, she said she did not feel that it was “worth the fight,” and she would not report the situation but would instead internalize it.

Today, Tran is associate professor and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. She said she would advise anyone in a situation similar to her early experience to “report the occurrence to your employer or the appropriate hospital administrator. If an employer decides to side with the discriminatory client, I would assess your situation and decide whether the environment is truly a supportive one for you.”

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Ruby Perry, DVM, DACVR, dean of the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine

Don’t tolerate a toxic environment, said Ruby Perry, DVM, DACVR, dean of the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine. “You will find you are having to defend yourself and protect your career at the same time.”

Instead, she said, determine whether you are going to stay or leave. If you stay, be “a courageous champion to impact change.” If you leave, “do not leave without giving an honest reason.”

If you decide to stay, take action to survive professionally, she explained. That includes:

  • Capturing evidence and documentation.
  • Always performing at a professional level in actions and conversations.
  • Challenging colleagues and bosses to “a courageous, collegial conversation.”
  • Finding supportive champions within the practice or organization who you can trust to speak to honestly about your feelings and treatment.
  • Seeking outside guidance through networking circles and those who work in the diversity and inclusion space.
  • Realizing that you are not alone. Find a support group to share experiences.
  • Moving on, if all else fails. “But not,” Perry advised, “without an impact of voice!”

Growing the Movement

An awareness of the need for diversity and inclusion in the predominately White veterinary-services industry has been around for a long time.

Back in November 1993, the AVMA Executive Board supported the efforts of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) to retain veterinary student eligibility for programs contained in the Disadvantaged Minority Health Act, which created a program of financial assistance for disadvantaged health-profession students.

In November 2004, the AVMA approved a statement on diversity, noting that “the AVMA is committed to diversity in all aspects of the profession so that we can best serve the animals and the public. The commitment to diversity pertains to professional areas of service and to cultural, ethnic, gender, and racial representations.”

Jen Brandt, LISW-S, PhD, director of Wellbeing, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiatives for the AVMA, shared that in December 2020, the AVMA and the AAVMC announced the formation of a new Commission for a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Veterinary Profession to drive change and accountability throughout the field.

Key objectives of the commission include:

  • Promoting the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the veterinary profession
  • Increasing diversity among veterinarians, veterinary school applicants and enrollees, interns, residents, and board-certified specialists
  • Encouraging and assisting veterinary medical associations and animal health companies to measure and improve DEI

The AVMA has also retained outside DEI expertise from L+C Learning to support the commission’s work and to help the AVMA develop its own strategies as it enhances DEI through a coordinated, profession-wide approach.

Taking Action

“The veterinary profession is made up of people, and that means our profession has the same issues and biases as our communities at large,” explained Quicksall. She channels her frustrations into action through her volunteer work with the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association (MCVMA), of which she is president and founding board member.

“Fighting systemic racism in our profession will take a lot of time and effort,” said Quicksall. “But trying to make the profession better for the BIPOC veterinary professionals who come after me and the BIPOC people we serve is a driving force for me.”

In the spring of 2020, the MCVMA and nine DEI affinity organizations came together to address systemic racism in veterinary medicine and made an official request to the AVMA to address issues internally and throughout the profession. In nine days, they collected 387 personal experiences of racism and discrimination from throughout the profession and created a video compilation. Quicksall said the video caused more groups and individuals in the field to acknowledge the challenges in the profession.

“We’ve done continuing education lectures, interviews, speaking engagements, social media campaigns, and podcasts on diversity, equity, and inclusion to reach more of our field,” said Quicksall. “We’ve also held several safe-space dialogues where BIPOC veterinary professionals have been able to support each other through difficult moments in 2020, including after the death of George Floyd.”

This year, the group is partnering with PetDesk to provide grants to help BIPOC veterinarians start practices in underserved communities, collaborating on a research project with the Veterinary Social Work Group at the University of Tennessee and Not One More Vet, building the infrastructure for general membership, and planning a virtual conference for the fall with all BIPOC speakers. Details can be obtained by emailing [email protected].

Voices of Experience

Marie Sato Quicksall, DVM, CVA, Cherese Sullivan, DVM, and Christina V. Tran, DVM, shared some discriminatory behaviors they have experienced.

MSQ: “I had two [clients]; each said the N-word. My all-White coworkers were also offended, but no move was made to tell the client it was inappropriate or to fire the client.”

CVT: “I’ve had several instances where clients refused to have me examine their pet when they heard my last name because it is Vietnamese. My husband was born in Vietnam.”

MSQ: “On my first clinical rotation, a professor found out I’m Japanese. He then yelled the names of random Japanese foods at me as a joke. I laughed because I didn’t feel like there was anything else I could do, but I felt disrespected. As the only BIPOC person on that rotation, I didn’t know whom I could approach about it and feared being labeled a problem and having that follow me through my clinical year, so I stayed silent.”

MSQ: “Coworkers have made inappropriate comments about BIPOC clients around me, and clients and coworkers have implied or flat-out stated that BIPOC people don’t take care of their pets, mostly aimed at Black and Latinx clients.”

CS: “After the one diversity talk in the entire four years of veterinary college, I had to listen to misinformed students complain that Affirmative Action allowed unqualified students to be admitted.”

MSQ: “Many clients have second-guessed me and asked for my male boss’s opinion on cases that he was not involved with, talked down to me, and even tried to physically intimidate me.”

CS: “As a veterinarian, I had a client who didn’t want me to see their dog because I was Black.”

MSQ: “I listened to fellow vet students repeatedly say disrespectful comments about some professors’ accents, and during a rotation, a clinician told me that Muslim kids were more likely to be terrorists. I’m not Muslim, but I found it very upsetting and had no idea how to report it.”

Puzzling Out the Pieces

Brandt said that the AVMA is continuing to expand its efforts to further infuse diversity and inclusion into its programs. And, she noted, human behavior is quite complex, with a number of intersecting variables playing a role in a person’s wellbeing.

“No organization can ensure a specific wellbeing outcome. However, the AVMA has taken several steps centered on evidence-based practices such as building wellbeing initiatives that work ‘with’ and ‘for’ team members, rather than aiming services ‘at’ team members, all while modeling an inclusive approach that enhances connection, empathy, compassion, and respect for self and others.”

Brandt said that the AVMA recognizes that wellbeing involves both individual- and system-level efforts, but that individual-level interventions can inadvertently place blame on individuals without addressing the needed changes at the system level—thus, they are only part of the puzzle. AVMA interdisciplinary efforts are specifically designed to balance the need for providing individual support while addressing the systemic factors that influence wellbeing throughout the profession.

When asked about examples of prejudice such as clients refusing to see a person because of their race, Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD, founder of Veterinary Business Advisors in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, explained that private businesses have the right to cultivate a culture that accommodates their clients despite misbehavior because they want the clients’ business or a culture where they fire a toxic client. She advised veterinary professionals to be aware of their leadership’s position on these issues because it could come down to a personal decision about whether or not to stay.

Regarding derogatory “jokes” or comments about or toward anyone, all organizations have a responsibility to act when they know there is a known hostile work environment. Academic environments, for example, may have policies in place, but, Lacroix noted, “it’s an issue of sensitization and enforcement.” Some tenured faculty may feel they don’t have to change, whereas other faculty members are on the forefront, leading the change.

“I understand that people may fear retaliation, but when you see something, say something. We need to have the courage to speak up when we see something that is wrong or inappropriate. The more that is said, the more that behaviors will be adjusted. We have a monochromic industry and a long way to go.”

Remembering Three Practical Points

Lacroix, one of the editors of the AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook, offered three points that veterinary practices might want to keep in mind as they work for a diverse and inclusive business.

  1. “Litigation is expensive and we, as veterinarians, don’t have the stomach for it. If you’ve ever been sued, you know it’s not only expensive but very confrontational. Consider employment practices liability insurance.
  2. “All it takes is one person to make a hostile work environment.
  3. “Leadership has to be clear on its values; that it doesn’t tolerate discrimination. And what does that mean? There are a thousand policies out there that we don’t tolerate but that we accommodate. We say one thing, but we do another. If you know about it or witness it, you have a responsibility to speak up.”

10 Steps Toward a Respectful Environment

Ready to move forward? Here are steps to take toward diversity and inclusion as suggested by interviewees for this article.

  1. Assess the current environment with an anonymous survey of everyone to get a baseline understanding of whether people in your workplace feel valued and included.
  2. Determine what success will look like by identifying end goals and then creating actionable, measurable steps to achieve the goals.
  3. Have regular check-ins to see if progress is happening, and if it’s not, determine why and what needs to be done.
  4. During quarterly or monthly meetings, discuss not only patients but work culture and what happens in that culture.
  5. Schedule diversity and inclusion education to awaken people to the issues.
  6. Make reporting mechanisms for discrimination known, safe, and effective, and protect the person reporting from negative repercussions.
  7. Be sure a diverse range of employees are at the table when major decisions are made.
  8. Mentor BIPOC students.
  9. Invite BIPOC veterinary specialists to speak to your staff or students to allow BIPOC team members to see someone who looks like them in a specialty and to share the diverse range of professionals with your whole team.
  10. Remember diversity in your hiring practices—but first, make sure you have a culture that is welcoming and has zero tolerance for discrimination.

 

Maureen Blaney Flietner
Maureen Blaney Flietner is an award-winning writer and illustrator living in Wisconsin.

 

Photo credits: Elvira Zhuravlevar/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photo courtesy of Cherese Sullivan, photo courtesy of Marie Sato Quicksall, photo courtesy of Christina V. Tran, Elvira Zhuravlevar/iStock via Getty Images Plus, photo courtesy of Jen Brandt, photo courtesy of Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, Vitalii Barida/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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