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How to Tackle Racism With Emotional Intelligence

6 key competencies can help you advocate for fairness and diversity everyday.

Key points

  • Racism exists in health care and impacts patients and providers, especially those from marginalized groups.
  • Truly conquering differences requires tackling individual racism—discrimination that arises from our own prejudices.
  • Enhancing emotional intelligence increases our capacity to accept differences and to overcome stereotypes we may hold.
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During a busy day in the clinic, while also on-call for emergency cases, a patient rudely expressed her displeasure when her appointment was delayed due to an urgent assessment for a patient who, like me, happened to be a person of color. When this patient in the waiting room commented, “I guess you need to be brown to be seen around here,” I was stunned, even though this was not the first time a patient had spoken to me this way.

Along with lobby efforts for police reform by the families of victims of police violence, the literature supports that racism is very much alive. This is true in health care as well, with significant impacts on patients and providers, especially those from marginalized groups. Numerous studies have demonstrated the negative impacts of racism on patient care. However, there are fewer studies looking at the racism experienced by health care providers from patients, colleagues, and institutions.

Doctors face racism too.

One such study, published in 2020, looked at the racism experienced by physicians of color in the health care setting. Of the 71 physicians surveyed, “23.3 percent of participants reported that a patient had refused care specifically due to their race/ethnicity,” and “Another 21.9 percent were unsure if a patient refusal for care was due to their race/ethnicity, but that it had occurred.”¹

Take a moment and imagine yourself as an accomplished and experienced physician in this situation. You are faced with a patient who is refusing your care and telling you it’s because of your race. The patient would rather delay a potentially life-saving intervention that you could provide to them because they perceive you—consciously or unconsciously—as being too different from themselves in some way.

Where does this rationale come from? How can we overcome this disdain for difference ?

Systemic racism and individual racism

Within organizations, equity, diversity, and inclusion policies are intended to raise awareness and address systemic racism—the racial discrimination and inequalities that result from practices within the institution. While setting expectations and accountability frameworks is important, truly conquering differences requires tackling individual racism—“a form of racial discrimination that stems from conscious and unconscious personal prejudice.”²

Tackling racism starts from within.

Emotional intelligence competencies

Emotional intelligence is about understanding your emotional responses and how they impact yourself and others. Based on measures of emotional and social competence originally developed by Reuven Bar-On (1997)³, there are 15 interrelated competencies of emotional intelligence that impact social and psychological well-being.

While at times we may not be aware of our emotional responses to unconscious thoughts and biases, actively taking time to reflect can help to uncover these thoughts and help understand our responses and behaviors. Whether you are a patient, physician, or health system leader, consider these six emotional intelligence competencies in the context of racism—the assumptions or judgments one places on another because of their race or ethnicity:

  1. Emotional self-awareness: When you meet someone who looks or acts differently than you, what feelings arise within you, and why? Do these feelings impact how you interact with them? What messages do your words and actions convey to those you interact with?
  2. Self-regard: How confident are you within yourself? Do you feel emotionally vulnerable or threatened when faced with the unknown, and if so, how do you respond and why?
  3. Flexibility: Are you open to new ideas and genuinely willing to understand different perspectives? Do you consider differences without judgment?
  4. Interpersonal relationships: Do you value relationships with others based on mutual respect, understanding, and trust? Do your words and actions convey sincerity and help to build trust?
  5. Empathy: If your loved one was treated poorly because of race, how would you feel? If you treat people who are different than you poorly, how do you think they feel? Are you able to relate?
  6. Social responsibility: Do you care about others beyond yourself and your own community? Do you believe in betterment for the greater good? How does your outlook impact your interactions with others?

Enhancing emotional intelligence increases our capacity to accept differences and to overcome prejudice and stereotypes we may hold, consciously or unconsciously.

Understanding our thoughts and emotional responses helps us to understand our own perspectives and overcome individual racism. Being open to others’ perspectives helps us to develop mutually respectful and authentic relationships that are essential to tackling racism.

Copyright: Dr. Nina Ahuja, M.D., 2021.


¹Serafini K, Coyer C, Brown Speights J, et al. Racism as Experienced by Physicians of Color in the Health Care Setting. Fam Med. 2020;52(4):282-287.

²Henry F, Tator, C. Book, The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. 3rd Ed. Toronto, ON: Nelson. 2006:p329.

³Reuven Bar-On, “Emotional Quotient-Inventory,” PsycTESTS Dataset, American Psychological Association (APA), May 7, 2012,