'White African-American' Suing N.J. Med School for Discrimination

race

Can a white guy be African-American?

Paulo Serodio says he is.

Born and raised in Mozambique and now a naturalized U.S. citizen, Serodio, 45, has filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey medical school, claiming he was harassed and ultimately suspended for identifying himself during a class cultural exercise as a "white African-American."

"I wouldn't wish this to my worst enemy," he said. "I'm not exaggerating. This has destroyed my life, my career."

The lawsuit, which asks for Serodio's reinstatement at the school and monetary damages, named the Newark-based University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and several doctors and university employees as defendants.

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, the lawsuit traces a series of events that Serodio maintains led to his 2007 suspension, starting with a March 2006 cultural exercise in a clinical skills course taught by Dr. Kathy Ann Duncan, where each student was asked to define themselves for a discussion on culture and medicine.

After Serodio labeled himself as a white African-American, another student said she was offended by his comments and that, because of his white skin, was not an African-American.

According to the lawsuit, Serodio was summoned to Duncan's office where he was instructed "never to define himself as an African-American … because it was offensive to others and to people of color for him to do so."

"It's crazy," Serodio's attorney Gregg Zeff told ABCNews.com. "Because that's what he is."

Serodio, who lives in Newark, said he never meant to offend anyone and calling himself African-American doesn't detract from another person's heritage.

Neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People responded to messages seeking comment on the meaning of African-American.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines African-American as "an American of African and especially of black African descent."

"There are people of all races who are African," Serodio said, adding that he's never had a problem identifying himself as an African-American until that day in Duncan's class.

Zeff pointed out that Serodio only labeled himself after his instructors asked him to do so and was then penalized for it.

Defending an Identity or Unprofessional Behavior?

Serodio said he is a third-generation African of Portuguese ethnicity whose great-grandfather emigrated to Mozambique. He came to the U.S. in 1984 after being accepted at New York University.

He met his future wife and started a family and, after deciding to settle in the U.S. permanently, got his citizenship in the early 1990s. After doing research work on and off, including for UMDNJ, with pauses in between to be a stay-at-home dad, Serodio said he decided to become a doctor to follow in his parents footsteps.

His plan, he said, was to become a doctor and join Doctors Without Borders where he could travel back to Africa to do charity work like his parents, either as an internist or possibly a neurologist. He started medical school, he said, when his eldest child was in first grade.

The family, he said, had hoped to hold a joint graduation party this spring– for his son's passing out of fourth grade and for Serodio's graduation from medical school. But they will only be celebrating his son's achievements this year.

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