"If there is no diversity at the forefront and in leadership, how will the nutrition and health gap for people of color ever close? Nutrition and health is for everyone — not just a particular segment of the population."
By Qula Madkin
I often get asked, “Why did you become a dietitian?” I had no plan to become a registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist. I graduated high school in a small Mississippi town with no idea of what I was going to do next. The only thing I had was an acceptance letter to Mississippi State University and a goal to become a physical therapist.
In high school, I was always a good student. I graduated as one of the top students in my class, yet I only had one meeting with my school counselor. The meeting was for her to tell me that my GPA was one of the top in my class — no mention of college, scholarships, the ACT — nothing.
Being a first-generation college student, I had no guidance or help. My cousin and I enrolled at MSU with limited resources, one typewriter and no meal plan. I survived freshman year eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an occasional grilled cheese from the cafeteria, meals from my cousin’s mom and the occasional Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger and fries — a luxury when I could scrape up $2.12.
In college, my goal was to become a physical therapist. PT school didn’t initially require an undergraduate degree, but that changed during the spring of my freshman year. I was extremely focused on finishing my undergraduate degree in four years, since I was paying my way through college with money earned working and from student loans.
I remember it like it was yesterday: I went through my undergraduate course catalog and highlighted in pink the classes I’d taken to decide what I would major in; low and behold, food, nutrition and dietetics came out on top. I didn’t even know what a registered dietitian was when I was younger. At that point, my goal was not to become an RD but to graduate in four years with a degree and make sure I didn’t take on any extra debt. Therefore, I know I am in this field because I am supposed to be — divine intervention.
When I started as a food, nutrition and dietetics major, one thing was evident: I was in a major that lacked Black students, Black professors and Black professionals. I was the only Black student in my undergraduate and graduate programs. When I started my internship rotations, I hoped I would finally meet a Black RD or an RD of color. That did not happen.
I met many Black foodservice professionals, many who said they were in school to become an RD at one point, but it didn’t work out. They told me the two common reasons for not finishing were the expense of an internship and not passing the RD exam.
During my foodservice rotations, there was a common theme; most of the staff (cooks, mid-level managers or supervisors) were Black. Being with the foodservice staff offered me comfort because I had people around me who I could identify with on some level. I was often encouraged by Black foodservice staff members. They would tell me to make sure I finish school and become an RD because, like me, they had not seen a Black RD either. They always inspired me and, when times were tough or I was frustrated, I held tight to their encouragement and thought about the many Black foodservice workers I had met along the way who were looking to me to become the first Black RD they knew. I talk about this all the time, but to put it down on paper makes me emotional. I am so grateful for their support.
I pushed forward and committed to becoming an RD so that other BIPOC students like me would have someone to look up to. There was no representation for me, so I wanted to ensure that I could be representation for others. As a professional with almost 20 years of experience, it is still hard to find mentors on the next level who look like me and who I identify with.
Based on what I learned in my undergraduate and graduate programs, much of what I grew up eating was considered unhealthy. This was frustrating because I was a student but also on a path to learn how to be healthier. I understand now that you can’t teach a person away from their culture. I believe more cultural humility is needed in the field of nutrition and dietetics.
Finally, Black RDs Do Exist!
After six years of school and an internship, I discovered that Black dietitians do exist! My Journey to Become a Registered Dietitian -I applied and interviewed for a prn RD position and met a beautiful Black woman. Not only was she a registered dietitian, but she was the first Black RD I had ever seen — it was hard to believe and I almost cried that day. I thought to myself, “It’s all good now.”
But, not so fast. As my professional career started to take off, I began to see more microaggressions. I recall being in a meeting with my intern and the person I was meeting with walked past me and started to speak with my white intern. I said to him, “I am the RD,” and he looked as if he had seen a ghost. He gave no apology, just a look that I interpreted as, “Are you kidding me? You are the RD?”
At another job, I was able to assist in hiring a new dietitian, which I was excited about. I was managing a large group of clients as a consultant, a group which I helped grow so much we needed to hire someone. I met the candidate we were considering and my boss wanted my opinion of her, but before I could even say my thoughts, my boss said, “She’s so pretty. Blonde hair and blue eyes… she will look good in front of the clients.”
This was a gut punch because not only was I highly capable, I had proven my capabilities through the growth and retainment of business. At that point in my career, I understood the need to be stoic and keep my cool. Her comment made me think that my boss intended for the new hire to be out front with clients and have me in the background. I asked my boss, “When did blonde hair and blue eyes become skills?” She replied with utter silence.
At another job, I was frequently berated by a white RD in a position of power. I had to walk away and bite my tongue multiple times because I believed if I acted the way she did, I wouldn’t have a job. When I spoke up and questioned this person’s poor treatment of me and other employees, she deemed me as having an “attitude.”
Having “an attitude” seemed to be her preferred word whenever I had a question or provided input that she did not agree with. My white counterparts could do the same, but I never heard her tell them they had an attitude. I left that position with my integrity intact and in good standing with the organization.
As a Black RD, I’ve been in situations where I felt I had to go above and beyond to make the people around me feel comfortable. I felt that voicing my opinion was seen as threatening, but not saying anything made me feel like I was abandoning my values and not standing up for what is right. These experiences taught me that silence is never an option. For anyone who may be going through something like this, I’d like to share a quote by Bell Hooks: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”
The Journey Continues!
I am here! Let me be clear, I have had some wonderful experiences as an RD and I love what I do. I have been blessed to work with and for some phenomenal folks and be part of some great things in diverse settings. I am a member of the Academy; I volunteer and work hard to support my professional organization and the future is bright for our profession. The unfortunate instances that I have experienced have taught me some lifelong lessons. But most importantly, they taught me who I don’t want to be.
Over the past few weeks, I have been able to listen to other RDs both older and younger than me, and it sounds like we are having some of the same conversations today that were had 20 years ago. While I am encouraged by the conversations, the needle must keep moving and at a faster pace than ever. I’ve stayed in this profession because I know it is my duty to make a difference in people’s lives. All RDs should work toward diversity and inclusion; it’s not just the responsibility of BIPOC dietitians.
Most of the dietitians I see on television, at conferences and as subject matter experts are white women. I believe people need to be able to identify with the person they are learning from. Therefore, representation matters, especially to me as a Black mother of four Black children. Representation shapes how others view us and how we view ourselves and our possibilities. See us.
If there is no diversity at the forefront and in leadership, how will the nutrition and health gap for people of color ever close? Nutrition and health is for everyone, not just a particular segment of the population. Nutrition programs and low-income areas often don’t have RDs who mirror the communities they serve. In my experience, there has been a lack of diverse subject matter experts in high-level positions to strategize on programming, create educational materials and to offer grant-writing support.
For program implementation and “boots on the ground,” I feel there is a perception that the BIPOC RD (with the same experience as their white colleagues) is better off in the supporting role. Although we only make up a small percentage of RDs, we are experts in this field and more of us should be at the forefront of leading this uphill fight for better nutrition and health for all. We are not just “boots on the ground,” and we are not only the supporting cast.
Representation matters, not just because we are Black, but because we are just as professional, smart, devoted and capable of doing the job. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ mission is to have a world where all people thrive through the transformative power of food and nutrition. By no means do I speak for all Black registered dietitians, but we are here, we are needed and we want to thrive!
This content first appeared in Food & Nutrition Magazine®.
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