Marisa’s Interview with Gina Gregory Burns

Introduction:

Gina Gregory Burns is a 61-year-old Black woman who has been a close family friend for over five years; her husband Derrick has been a close friend to my stepdad since college. She currently lives in San Mateo, California, and has two children. Gina grew up in Manhattan, New York. Gina is a physician at Kaiser Permanente and has been an internal medicine physician for 31 years. Gina spent her college years studying at Yale and Howard University.

Background:

Gina spent a large amount of her life on the East coast, where most of her family resides. Gina described to me that growing up during the 1970s in New York was “pretty dismal” and that the changes were “dramatic.” She grew up in an area that has had many names over time. She grew up on 141st Street, Manhattan’s West side of the island. She shared with me that sometimes it has been called West Harlem, and sometimes Sugar Hill.

As of now, it is called Hamilton Heights since Alexander Hamilton lived up the street. She also mentions that it is at the border of the City College of New York (CUNY), which is pretty well-known. Her apartment complex comprised with 60 units became family to her; she told me that she knew everyone and still knows them today. The residents of Sugar Hill were often writers and musicians; the area’s history was “pretty remarkable,” as Gina describes. Gina begins to share her experience living in New York during the Civil Rights Movement and when MLK died:

“I remember being in my apartment with my dad when MLK was killed, I remember exactly where I was at staring at the family radio, and I remember watching my parents cry during the funeral and the upset around that time. I remember sitting with them watching the JFK funeral; President Kennedy was killed certainly in the civil rights era there was a lot of protest against the Vietnam war, and at City College there were protests. I remember being a kid and watching hundreds of thousands of kids protesting right outside of my window. The riots after MLK was killed, I remember people were running- people were looting and kind of running down the hill down in central Harlem. There were so many things going on in that time period. You know, in brief, there were so many things to be exposed to in New York.”

Her educational background at Yale and Howard University allowed her to stay put and close to family. Gina described her experience during medical school, her early residency years, and the rest of her career. In this part of the interview, Gina describes to me what she was thinking about when a friend from Yale asked her to reflect on her time at the university for the upcoming reunion. She tells me about being a woman of color in a predominantly White university and how she found her “home” along the way.

“She was asking me all these questions that I had to reflect on and things I haven’t thought of in a really long time, and it gets more to your other question about race and gender, and how those experiences play out and when I was at Yale, which was 1977-1981, there was and had only been about ten years of women there. At the time when you’re that age, you think, well, “that’s a long time for them to get themselves together,” but that’s not true. When you get older, you learn that ten years of the evolution of a university or a society is not much at all. So, also, there had not been a history of a significant amount of people of color. Even though we were not the “pioneers” in this effort, we were still as far as people of color were concerned in the process of advocating for having cultural studies and having what we called “the house,” The African American Cultural Center. At that point, there was the Asian American group and the combined Latin group from different places and also the African American Cultural Center, which became home.

Identity and Intersectionality:

Gina’s intersectional identity has created space for unique stories and experiences. She tells me about how she has navigated her path during her college years and following into her career.

“I would say as far as identity, I think I identified with being more African American at that point than being a woman. Being a woman was huge, but in terms of priority, I think that was true. And I think that’s true oftentimes for African American women. The feminist movement has not necessarily always been embracing of women of color. And so, when you talk about feminism and the feminist movement, I think black women see it differently than white women do.”

When Gina brought up this idea of Black women viewing the feminist movement differently than White women, her perspective reminded me of what Audre Lorde wrote about in her paper “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Audre Lorde writes about this same idea of the feminist movement that did not include women of color, specifically Black women. Lorde emphasizes that “White women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.” Lorde’s powerful statement of what sisterhood truly means reflects the discriminatory actions of White women during the feminist movement, as Gina describes.

“After I left Yale, I went to Howard University, and that was a tremendous experience for me to go to an Ivy League school and then a historically black college and university (HBCU) because it reinforced my own comfort and identity instead of feeling a bit marginalized and maybe not mainstream at Yale, even though I had great friends and got a great education, exposed to wonderful things, at the same time it was not the same feeling of being part of it as I saw at HBCU, and those became my lifelong friends in a different way.”

Gina talks about marginalization during her time at Yale. She expressed to me that while she feels extremely grateful and privileged for her time at Yale, being at Howard, she made lifelong friends in a “different way.” Her experience made me recognize how certain aspects of society leave out women of color and cause them to feel marginalized. 

Career and Work Place Discrimination:

“It was a male-dominated profession, but now my work environment is certainly becoming almost equal.”

Gina notes that working in the medical field and more specifically as a doctor was a very “male-dominated profession.” Although she says it is becoming almost equal, her experience made me think of some shocking statistics that I learned in class. The statistics stem from an article titled “Black women workers are essential during the crisis and for the recovery but still are greatly underpaid” by Valerie Wilson and Melat Kessa. The report notes that Black women doctors are paid 73% of the average hourly wage paid to non-Hispanic white male doctors (a difference of $16.82 per hour).” This is a significant gap between Black women and White men in the same profession.

“The four years I was there and the 3-year programs (I spent the next three years chief resident) the next couple of years there was another woman who joined the orthopedic program, a Black woman, and I remember we would see each other in the hallways we would say, “HOW YA Doing!!? ” So it was always comforting to know she was there. She was in an even more stressful environment (because she was in a surgical program) than I was, more male-dominated and all White.”

Gina shared with me this feeling of comfort when she was around other Black women, whether it was in college or during her residency. The large gap and White male domination were obvious during her residency and later career.

Women in the Workplace:

“I’ve been trying to tell younger women and colleagues my stories a lot because sometimes when you are the recipient of other people’s struggles and advantages sometimes you don’t see or know the struggles of what they’ve gone through, which is why you’re doing what you’re doing! But just trying to remind them that when I got there, there was a struggle. We didn’t have lactation time for breastfeeding or extended time for maternity leave. There were very few women if at all who were there and the support.” 

When Gina told me about the non-existent lactation time for mothers and extended time for maternity leave, it reminded me of the concept of “mom bias”. The idea of “mom bias” is mentioned in the article titled “We talked to an employment lawyer about ‘mom bias.’ Here’s what she wants you to know” by Stephanie Murray. Murray talks about mom bias and how no industry is “immune” to this discrimination. According to Murray, many women have complained that “regulations surrounding pregnancy, maternity leave and pumping are complex, and employers have little incentive to ensure that women are properly informed about them.” Since women in the workplace are not informed or openly able to use these resources, it is discriminatory and harder for the woman to work during her pregnancy and motherhood.

“If you were a woman or a person who is a primary caregiver at home, then you couldn’t work less than full time. It was an assumption that you can work full time because you have someone else at home who is going to do all of the rest. So, people were actually looked down on. Because of that you were less than, not as dedicated as.”

What Gina shared about being looked down on was mentioned in the same article. The article notes that women with children are often considered “less available” and “too distracted” to do their jobs properly. As a result, many mothers face discrimination either before or after maternity leave, based on the assumption that they will be less committed to their jobs (Murray, 2020).

Microaggressions, Racism, Sexism:

“The work I do at Kaiser aside from my clinical work is on equity, inclusion, and diversity. There is so much work to do because of the microaggressions or overt racism, the sexism that occurs still is very prevalent as you mentioned the women and well-known cases of particularly women of color as physicians have been let go of their jobs and just when they were doing what they had been asked to do. They always find other reasons why (their performance etc.) but often it’s not even documented. Those are issues that are still relevant, and prevalent for white women, but I would say in terms of my identity certainly recognizing it’s very much women of color who feel the brunt of it.”

I found everything that Gina told me as valuable information, especially when she talks about conforming to a standard. She notes that microaggressions and overt racism are still very prevalent in the workplace. Racist acts continue, and as Gina states, women of color feel the brunt of it.

“The people in power often don’t even see how their actions are influenced by society with the racist undertones but sometimes if something is different, they become critical of it as opposed to saying “is it valuable” or how it is helping us. If it is seen as different, or not the standard or what I’m used to, then it’s pushed aside or marginalized or criticized and they might not see it as being racist or sexist, but it is. It’s being judged outside of their own standard that they’re used to. That’s kind of what they’re relying on, is what’s familiar to them, what’s comfortable to them, not necessarily what’s right or what might be an advantage to their organization.”

Gina touches on the importance of awareness of one’s acts and taking the time to recognize racist or sexist acts by oneself. It reminded me of Sandra Kim’s article “Here’s Why White Allies Can Get So Overwhelmed and Confused About What To Do Next About Racism,” which talks about our racial attitudes and how to change them in America. Kim said that “all this painful disorientation, destabilization, and confusion is a normal part of the healing journey of becoming socially conscious.” Kim recognizes that this isn’t an easy or comfortable process. Being “socially conscious” is the step towards change and equity in society. When we are conscious of our actions and what we say, we can become more united and learn to appreciate others.

Conclusion and My Perspective:

I want to personally thank Gina Gregory Burns for sharing her experiences and history with me. Although I have known Gina for a while now, we have never talked about her life and the stories she has shared with me. I appreciate how articulate and passionate she is about her job, helping others, and her dedication to improve diversity, equality, and inclusion in her workplace. I will always be grateful to know Gina and how much she has taught me over this project.

Now, when I reflect on my own identity over this project, I feel empowered by many things. As an Asian American woman, I understand what it feels like to be the other and to feel marginalized in specific environments. I am aware of my intersectional identity, and I am also very proud of it. Hearing about Gina’s experiences in the workplace opened my eyes to what my reality could be like when I’m older. Women face a significant amount of discrimination in the workplace, especially women of color. When Gina told me about her personal experiences with hearing men talk about letting a woman go because she was a caretaker and had mother duty tasks, it made me wonder if that will be my reality when I am older. I have learned so much from what Gina has shared with me; I hope to learn more about other women like Gina and hear their stories. I asked Gina if there was anything else she would like to add at the end of our interview. What she said is something that I will always strive to achieve and fulfill.

She told me, “… there a lot of things I would still like to add, but I think that right now, in the unfortunate chaos of our country, this is a perfect time for further conversation to collaborate and understand each other. Unless we hear each other’s stories, then it is hard to acknowledge, respect other people until we hear their stories. I have learned a lot in the past year just by listening to people. It is an opportunity to both hear people’s stories and create real institutionalized and organizational changes and address them.”

From this, I know I will strive to keep having conversations and listening. Listening to Gina and learning about her unique background, which is different from mine, was amazing. I want to make sure I keep listening and respecting others people’s stories so then I can learn more about what they have been through.

Thank you, Gina.

Works Cited

Kim, S. (n.d.). Here’s why WHITE allies get overwhelmed and confused about what to do. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.sandrakim.com/heres-why-white-allies-dont-know-what-to-do-next?mc_cid=e6a1b89a30&mc_eid=d98fd8e36f

Lorde, A. (n.d.). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Retrieved from https://www.colorado.edu/odece/sites/default/files/attached-files/rba09-sb4converted_8.pdf

Murray, S. (2020, July 28). We talked to an employment lawyer about ‘mom bias.’ here’s what she wants you to know. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.thelily.com/we-talked-to-an-employment-lawyer-about-mom-bias-heres-what-she-wants-you-to-know/