27: Jessica Clemons
Jessica and I talked about makeup in med school, creating the Minority Medical Network, challenging our expectations of medical professionals, and blackness post-Trump.
Jessica Clemons is a Psychiatry Resident at NYU Langone Medical Center and the creator of the Minority Medical Network.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on February 19, 2017 in Jessica's Brooklyn apartment. Elena Mudd photographed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
JESSICA: Growing up, I was encouraged to be whatever I wanted to be. I kind of felt like the world was my oyster. Most of my friends were other girls, but I always felt like I was a leader. In addition, my parents were super big on education. They weren't college-educated when they got married and had us, but then I think they realized that [a lack of higher-ed] can be a burden financially, so they really drove home the idea that we should go to college and become professionals. They were really encouraging. [For example,] if I read a book and there was a play, they would take me to see the play because I finished the book. My parents even went back to college and eventually got master’s [degrees]. I was a kid, and they went to class and I would wait out in the hall and do my homework. I don't know if I would be a doctor right now if they weren't really pushing that early on.
SOPHIA: It seems like you felt totally confident and in control, which is rare. [laughs] Was there a moment growing up in which you suddenly saw your identity in a different way in relationship to your interests or your future?
JESSICA: Our community was very socioeconomically and racially diverse, so I always felt like I belonged—especially because I did so well in school that teachers would actively recruit me to do things, which was affirming. I never felt like I couldn't do something because I was a girl.
I think I had a moment where I felt like I had been lied to, but it was more related to [physical] development. Guys would pick on me because I was too skinny, and I felt like people didn’t find me attractive, which wasn't something that I thought about before, because I could run around, my hair could be everywhere, I didn't carry a purse. I could do whatever I want. If I didn’t have academics I probably would’ve felt even more like, “Why am I not looking ‘girly’ like my friends?” But I was so solid [academically] that if people wanted to make it a gendered thing, they couldn't really because I was like the star!
SOPHIA: Can you talk about deciding that you wanted to be a doctor? Who or what supported or didn't support you along the way, and how did and didn’t you support yourself?
JESSICA: I decided so early on that I never really thought about doing anything else. My parents supported it wholeheartedly and I felt like that’s when my path started, and I tried to do what I could to maintain that path. [Other kids] were experimenting with all kinds of stuff and I tried to avoid it. I would ask myself, “What does it mean to be a doctor?” and I would try to do that.
I did have a period just before med school when I was a little bit resentful, because I felt like all my decisions leading into [my career in] medicine were aligned with what I thought it meant to be a doctor. Moving to New York helped me to shake that off a little bit. People think that doctors are really conservative and super goody, and that can be the case, but I feel like you don't have to be conservative in the way that I had always thought about medical professionals. It’s been difficult trying to navigate what it means to be a doctor and to not necessarily fit the norm. Like, I'm a woman. I'm black. So can I even fit into what I think medicine was 40 or 50 years ago?
SOPHIA: Can you talk a bit more about that resentment? I can’t tell if it was directed towards missing out on past experiences you could’ve had, or towards a future that you felt was fundamentally incommensurate with your desires.
JESSICA: I felt like I didn't get to really explore that part of myself that I see a lot of teenagers in New York doing—how they're expressing themselves. I think they come across a lot more confident in who they are because they had a period in which they didn’t have to overthink everything, while a lot of my thoughts were, “How will this impact my chances of being a doctor?”
When I started med school, I felt like people didn't really wear makeup and weren't that expressive with their clothing, but I wanted to do those things! It’s difficult to navigate that culture, and to say, “I want to be a doctor, and this is who I am. Today I want to put on makeup.” or “Today I want to get best friend tattoos with my friend,” and not think about it.
SOPHIA: I'm sure it varies in different institutions and with different people, but in response to your comment about women not really “performing” womanhood in med school, did you find that environment to be one of gender-erasure or neutralization? In the company of other women, did you find that there was a sort of solidarity, or was everyone more like “We’re all scientists here”?
JESSICA: It felt very different from my experience with friends outside of medicine. I would go hang around them and wear very feminine clothing, and realize that I'm the one that needs to catch up!? My friends would be like, “Where's your mascara? What are you doing?”
JESSICA: There’s the idea that this is generally a male-dominated field, but now I think more women are going into medicine. I think it might be 50/50 or 55/45 in most programs? But I still notice a difference. Before I went into med school I had a year where I was just interviewing, so I still cared about [makeup, clothes, etc.], but when I started school I had to tone it down a little. But even within medicine, I tend to be drawn to the women that are still cute and their hair is done. I’m like, “Oh! I love her and I want to be her.” So I still kind of dabble with it now. Depending on how I feel, I might do a little brow and lip and see how people react.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about your experience creating the Minority Medical Network?
JESSICA: Well it started because there weren't a lot of people that I knew that were black and in medicine. I had a lot of questions that I felt that I couldn’t go to people with because I didn’t really have any mentors, regardless of ethnicity. Then I applied to a post-bac that focuses on minorities or people who are disadvantaged economically, and they were giving tips that I hadn't thought about before. I ended up getting into a really great med school, and I felt like there the minority population was even less than it had been [in previous academic institutions]. There were probably like 5 out of 100 people there who could be considered African American. So I was just like woah, because my whole life had always been really mixed.
Then on social media I was gaining a little bit of a following, and there was this whole category of people who would never like anything else, but when I said something about medicine they would like and comment, and they would ask questions. So I wanted to make a place where people could go, because I found that if I searched about medicine online, the results tended to be generic, and people wanted something that was more specific.
SOPHIA: I know a lot of women ask you about work/life balance, which seems particularly difficult in your field.
JESSICA: That's partly how I decided the field I'm doing. I'm a resident in psychiatry. Part of that is because I'm very interested in it, but it's also a field that’s very flexible. You can have a private practice, you can work in a hospital, you can do emergency medicine…I knew that I was going to get to a place at which I would want to become a mom. I think it’s because I was raised by parents who put me on this very empowering path, so I wanted to be able to give that back. I am getting more comfortable with the idea of eventually having to fall back a little, and I think it's because I've been pushing myself so hard for so long. A lot of my enjoyment comes from my experiences outside of medicine, because that’s when I get to feel like I'm myself. I dress how I wanna dress, talk the way I wanna talk, so I want to be able to explore that more. It helps that my partner is also very independent and driven, and we really support each other. There’s absolutely no idea [in our relationship] that my role is in the house, but because I have this awesome career that I built, if I want to take time to do that, I can always go back to it. I think oftentimes that’s my message to women and girls. Go for what you want and make that sound, because you can go back to it. But if you don't work your way up to that, you're going to always feel like you're straddling two worlds. But if I have this knocked out and I'm done, I can come back to it.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about women that have been personal or professional mentors to you?
JESSICA: Early on when I was living in my hometown, I ended up having a doctor who was a female and black. So during a lot of my visits I'd have my checkup, then we would talk about my interests in medicine. I really liked her bedside manner and I felt like everyone in her office liked her, and it was just cool to see someone have her own practice and look like me. When I was in med school, I had a lot of female mentors who were very successful in their careers, and I felt like I could go to them when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do, and speak openly about the things that were important to me outside of medicine. They helped weigh in about how this could even work, and were very honest about the presence of people in some of the fields I was drawn to that they thought weren't happy. I feel like people got the sense that having a life outside of medicine is very important to me. I had a group of girlfriends in med school that would study together. I went to one person's wedding and she's a resident in New York also now, and she helped me look for a wedding dress.
SOPHIA: I know you've posted a lot about race before and after the election, at one point emphasizing that 58% of white voters voted for Trump. Has your relationship to white women changed in the wake of the election? Or even just the general relationship between race and gender?
JESSICA: It's very polarizing. Because I feel like my developmental years were really diverse, I didn't necessarily feel like I was in any minority group. It wasn't like my parents ever sat down and said “here's what it means to be black,” or “here's what it means to be a woman.” I grew up in Alabama, but whether my friends were white or black, we all did the same things. We listened to the same music, we went to the same places. I think the first time I felt like it was different was in New York. I would reference certain things and my friends who weren't black would look at me like they didn't know what I was talking about.
So after this election, finding out this statistic, it just made me feel like...first of all, who and where are these people? And have I been around them my whole life? I don't think it necessarily changed my relationship with white women or white people, but I think it made me feel like we need to have conversations more openly about race and gender. I found it interesting that women didn't necessarily come out and fully support the female candidate. Are women not comfortable with women being in roles of power? What does a woman feel when she sees me walk in as a doctor? Do you prefer a man? Do you prefer them to be not black? I don't know.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
JESSICA: Be supportive. That's really general, but if you're doing something very well, give back to other women. I also think supporting other disadvantaged groups can really help with the bigger picture of inequality as a whole. Women can be much more vocal in human rights in general, and I think that would be helpful. That's kind of our nature. Maybe it isn't everyone’s, but my nature tends to be more nurturing, which I think is powerful.
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