(The Root) — It's no surprise that Dr. Christian Head's account of being depicted as a gorilla sodomized by his white supervisor in a slideshow shown at a UCLA School of Medicine graduation "roast" has been the subject of national attention and outrage.
The African-American head-and-neck surgeon's tale of over-the-top racism by the university went viral, thanks to a YouTube video chronicling the allegations and a Change.org petition calling on the UCLA Board of Regents to "end the racial discrimination and deplorable mistreatment" against Head.
But the worst part of the "gorilla slide," as it's described in an April 17 discrimination action filed on Head's behalf against his supervisors and the Regents, is that, according to the 49-year-old doctor, it was merely one moment in a pattern of discrimination, harassment and humiliation by the UCLA School of Medicine that he says has lasted for years.
And according to the April 17 complaint, the physician, who was once named "Most Innovative Surgeon" by Black Enterprise and who launched UCLA's Johnson Cancer Center Tumor lab, faced retaliation by the institution when he asked for the wrongs against him to be righted.
As the only African-American tenured professor at UCLA's department of head and neck surgery, Head says it all started when his supervisor, Marilene Wang, labeled him an "affirmative action hire" and "affirmative action project" and proclaimed that black doctors like him were the reason for failed hospitals. Things got worse, according to the complaint, when he cooperated with an investigation against Wang. He says the retaliation escalated until, at a 2006 event for graduating students, it became public. Head tells his version of the events in the video (shown above) created by NAACP executive Willis Edwards to spread the word about the case, saying:
[A] series of 20 slides, describing me as a poor doctor … then the final slide was a photo of a gorilla on all fours with my head photoshopped onto the gorilla, with a smile on my face, and a Caucasian man, completely naked, sodimizing me from behind, and my boss' head photoshopped on the person, smiling. I could feel the pressure in my chest, listening to them laugh. I waited until the laughter subsided, and then I approached the podium, and I pulled my boss aside, Dr. Gerald Berke, and I said to him, "How could you let this happen? How could you do this?" And he just smiled and chuckled, you know … "What's the problem?"
Head says the school ignored his requests to address the incident and convinced him that pushing to have his allegations of racism addressed would put his career on the line.
Heeding that warning, he let the issue go until after he was tenured, but when he did readdress it, he reports that things only got worse: His complaint details receiving paychecks for amounts less than a dollar, teaching opportunities denied, deliberate attempts to sabotage his medical career, plus discrimination, harassment and retaliation that all continue, he and his attorneys claim, to this day.
The Root reached out to the UCLA Head and Neck Clinic, where defendants Gerald Berke and Marilene Wang work alongside Head as physicians specializing in otolaryngology, as well as the university's media-relations office and chancellor's office. All offices contacted declined to comment beyond the university's official statement on the case, condemning the behavior described in the complaint but saying, "UCLA has formal grievance and disciplinary procedures that afford appropriate due process review of any complaints of discrimination or mistreatment. Dr. Christian Head and his attorney were repeatedly advised of these procedures and encouraged to utilize them. They chose not to do so." (Read the full statement here.) To that, Head's attorney Shannon Foley responds that the university's procedures "proved not to be trustworthy."
The complaint, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, details the allegations, but according to Foley, the case is simple. In her words, "It's about a very reputable doctor who has been punished for reporting what he believed was discrimination and harassment to his boss, to management, to the chancellors and to the regent, and who has been retaliated against beyond measure since then."
The Root talked to Foley about the "intolerable" atmosphere that she says Head continues to face at UCLA, the outpouring of support from the black UCLA community and what's next in the courtroom and in her client's career.
The Root: The "gorilla slide," as it's called in Dr. Head's complaint, is the most talked-about aspect of this case. Can you put it in the context of his entire experience at UCLA?
Shannon Foley: That was just one of many events. It was the culmination of years of discrimination … and, in fact, things have continued since then. He's treated differently than other doctors there, to this day.
TR: So Dr. Head is still at work at UCLA?
SF: He's still there. Things are very difficult, and almost intolerable. They are intolerable. He's experienced an escalation of a lot of the retaliatory and discriminatory events — for example, lack of coverage by residents. Other doctors have coverage by residents and he does not, in his surgeries and for emergency situations with patients. No other doctors have that experience [of being denied coverage by residents].
With every other doctor, if there's a resident there on staff, the resident will cover for them. But he's made to come in each and every time, in the middle of the night, any time. And he does. He takes care of his patients.
TR: Does he plan to stay on regardless of the outcome of the litigation?
SF: He's doing his best to cover [his patients], and it's becoming increasingly difficult. I can't tell whether he'll be able to do that.
TR: The complaint says Dr. Head was referred to as an "affirmative action hire" and an "affirmative action case." Is that something you hear often in your work on employment-discrimination matters?
SF: It's outrageous that someone would refer to a physician who was hired there and who was a board-certified surgeon, and who has the same certification as the particular doctor speaking, as an "affirmative action hire." That is not normal. He is the only African American in that particular department, and for some reason, she [Wang] wanted to have him considered less than. And she has been making racist comments from the beginning, and she was determined to interfere with his advancement throughout.
TR: What is a university's responsibility to respond to allegations like Dr. Head's? What should UCLA have done when Dr. Head first raised his concerns about his treatment?
SF: They have duties to conduct an investigation. They have duties to respond like any organization; they have duties to talk to all the witnesses, not just a couple, and to remedy the situation. They also have a duty to ensure that there's no retaliation against witnesses and against the person who's made the complaint. And, as we've set forth in our complaint, that didn't happen here.
TR: What's next?
SF: There are some procedural things that are happening with the complaint — the defendants will have an opportunity to respond. I'm not sure how they will respond. [Wednesday] there is a rally planned for campus in support of Dr. Head. There's been a huge outpouring of response from the black faculty, from the African Student Union, and they've been very supportive.
TR: Is there a sense that his experience is representative of a larger problem with race discrimination at UCLA?
SF: I can't speak for them, but from what I'm hearing, others [in the UCLA community] have experienced their own discrimination.
TR: What would be the ideal outcome of this case?
SF: If UCLA could retain and recruit African Americans and treat them with the respect that they deserve, and make Dr. Head whole for the years of discrimination and harassment he's experienced, so that the road could be paved for others who come behind him.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.
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