Picture of Sarah CurrieSarah Currie is a medical copy editor on CMAJ

Whether or not you’re a fan of the NFL or the Minnesota Vikings, chances are you’ve heard of Adrian Peterson and the debate over corporal punishment that has been reignited as a result of his indictment on charges of negligent injury to a child. Mr. Peterson used a “switch” to discipline his four-year-old son. In text messages to his son’s mother, he admitted that he may have gone too far in doing so. The child’s skin was broken in several places across the backs of his thighs and buttocks. At least once, the switch hit the child’s scrotum.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, right is right and wrong is wrong,” said Jim Rome of CBS Sports’ The NFL Today, when interviewing Charles Barkley, who appeared to defend corporal punishment in some cultural contexts. Is he right? Is there no room for moral relativism in some debates?

Professor Britney Cooper, PhD, author of a Salon article, commenting on the Adrian Peterson case and exploring the intersection of parenting and race, provides some perspective on the differences between how white and black parents discipline their children:

I think of the centuries of imminent fear that have shaped and contoured African-American working-class cultures of discipline, the sternness of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ looks, the firmness of the belts and switches applied to our hind parts, the rhythmic, loving, painful scoldings accompanying spankings as if the messages could be imprinted on our bodies with a sure and swift and repetitive show of force.

Note that Professor Cooper does not defend the use of corporal punishment (she concludes by saying that violence is not love), but she provides a cultural context for its use. We need to understand and acknowledge that cultural context before we can make a concerted effort to change it.

CMAJ is certainly a proponent of “positive parenting” philosophies and the abolishment of corporal punishment from the parental tool kit. Yet, after reading Ms. Cooper’s article, I wondered what role white privilege might play in the way physicians deal with cases where it is clear that corporal punishment has been used. Do physicians in Canada approach the issue with sufficient cultural understanding?

A quick Google search of the racial breakdown of physicians in Canada led me to an article CMAJ published in 2002, which suggested that black and Aboriginal Canadians were underrepresented among first-year medical students. My search didn’t net me much more than that, other than a document from the Wellesley Institute that mentioned that reliable health-related research on race in Canada is relatively rare.

I wonder if this rarity has to do with our discomfort in talking about race and racism. Many white Canadians seem to think that racism is an American problem. We are still a largely white society, and many of us have the privilege of believing that race plays no role in the lives of our fellow citizens. (We would be wrong.)

It is difficult to recognize our own privilege until we are confronted with it. White physicians, it could be argued, are among the most privileged members of Canadian society in terms of race, status, education and wealth. Though some of that privilege is earned, many physicians entered medical school already at an advantage. How much that privilege dictates the assumptions physicians make about their patients, how they interact with their patients and the quality of care they provide are questions that physicians should be asking themselves. Can physicians “check their privilege,” and might that benefit their patients?