The chair of Columbia University’s Psychiatry Department tweeted a racist tweet about a dark-skinned Black model drawing fire from all corners of Medical Twitter. Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman quote tweeted another account that attempted to celebrate Sudanese model Nyakim Gatwech, saying, “whether a work of art or freak of nature, she’s a beautiful sight to behold.”
Several medical professionals explained the tweet was not just bad taste but racist. Some went further to explain that Lieberman’s comfort making the “freak of nature” comment was an example of a broader issue in institutional leadership.
“Respectfully, this ‘compliment’ is problematic stated and reads as racist,” Dr. Stella Safo tweeted in response to the now-deleted tweet. “Your role as a clinician providing care for patients is the only reason I and others are asking you to please delete and rephrase. It’s anti-Black; it may not be your intention, but that’s how it’s coming off.”
“THIS is why representation in medical education/leadership is essential,” Dr. Nicole Christian Brathwaite tweeted. “THIS is why training racism/bias/social determinants of health must be incorp. into medical training. Chair of a dept comfortably calling another human being ‘freak of nature’ b/c of skin color is unacceptable.”
After getting push back, he deleted the tweet and offered a non-apology saying he was “living and learning.” Maybe it’s time he “lived and learned” someplace else and not in multiple positions of decision-making power and authority.
After the non-apology was called out as being insufficient, he deactivated his Twitter account. Lieberman’s tweet exemplifies the reality of structural racism in the medical profession and within institutional leadership.
Addressing anti-racism and anti-blackness across sectors is vital because of the policy determinations being made and the direct impact on people’s lives. Lieberman and the institutions with which he’s affiliated can’t hope to solve this by simply running away from a social media platform.
According to his Columbia University bio, Lieberman is also the director of the New York State Psychiatrist Institute and Psychiatrist-in-Chief for the Columbia University Medical Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital.
The New York State Psychiatric Institute has its own history of racial discrimination and questionable practices. The facility came under fire in 1998 after news broke of research involving Black and Latino children targeted to test a theory about criminal or violent behavior and given a drug that was later pulled. According to the New York Times, the researchers targeted boys 6-10 who were the younger brothers of people labeled at the time as “delinquents.”
There are layers of racism in both the Lieberman tweet and the original post. The original post by Twitter user @zg4ever fetishizes Gatwech’s skin color and . The account also repeated a previously debunked claim that Gatwech held the Guinness record for “darkest skin ever seen on earth.”
In May 2020, the Guinness World Records Twitter account discounted this claim, saying that they don’t track skin tone.
Some earlier versions of the Guinness records claim included a picture of model Florence Baitio but claimed it was Gatwech. Besides having dark skin the two women do not even look alike.
Gatwech also addressed the false claim on her Instagram Tuesday afternoon. The model also said she believed the false narrative impacted her brand.
Being well-meaning or having good intentions doesn’t make the situation better. It’s also not for non-dark skinned Black people to shrug off and excuse as just a mistake, as some have done.
Lieberman’s possible feelings and embarrassment are not important. There is a long history of objectifying and othering Black women.
As statistician-epidemiologist and MD candidate Elle Lett, Ph.D., noted in a recent Medium post, there is a difference between acknowledging actual harm and taking accountability and the way Lieberman further compounded his actions with his non-apology. (Read Lett’s full post here).
“The distinction between cowardice and accountability is real simple,” wrote Lett. “Have you demonstrated a deep understanding of how your actions were harmful, outlined a path for restitution, and described practices that ensure you won’t make the same mistake again, OR have you hidden from the people holding you accountable, waiting it out by ignoring their voices and protecting your own feelings.”