Columbia Psychiatry Chief Suspended Over Racist Tweet About Black Model

The chair of Columbia University’s department of psychiatry was suspended indefinitely on Wednesday over his tweet about a dark-skinned model. He was also removed as psychiatrist-in-chief at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

“Whether a work of art or freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold,” Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman tweeted on Monday in response to a photo and post about Nyakim Gatwech, an American model of South Sudanese descent.

The photo was posted by a user who referred to Gatwech as “it” and claimed the model had won a Guinness World Record for having the darkest skin on Earth, which is not true.

Lieberman, who is regarded as one of the nation’s leading psychiatrists, deleted the tweet and apologized after the public immediate outcry.

“TWEET DELETED. My sincere apologies for any offense taken and indiscretion. Living and learning,” he wrote, according to screenshots captured by social media users. He later disabled his account.

Members of the medical community said the apology was not enough. Some said the incident, stemming from a high-ranking professional and educator at one of the nation’s top institutions, represented major systemic issues facing Black patients and doctors in America’s health care system.

“HE IS A PHYSICIAN,” wrote Dr. Heather Irobunda, a New York City obstetrician-gynecologist, in a social media post. “We all should have a basic understanding of how pigmentation can vary from person to person.”

“It also makes me wonder what other things about people of color that physicians like him and others think are ‘freakish’ and how that impacts the way in which they deliver care to those individuals,” she added.

Dr. Ima Ebong, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, tweeted that it was an example of “why we need more Black leaders in medicine… Calling us ‘Freaks of nature’ is racist, fetishizes our bodies and is rooted in slavery and colonialism. Shameful.”

“When I consider the fact that Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman was the head of psychiatry at Columbia, a prestigious medical school, and former president of the American Psychiatry Association, it’s easier to understand why the DSM-V is such a mess,” wrote Dr. Bryan Levya, a resident and researcher at the University of Minnesota.

Gatwech also responded to the incident, noting that Guinness World Records said last year that it does not monitor skin tones.

She said the spread of the fake assertion had been negatively impacting her Instagram account.

“I can’t imagine it’s even possible to know who’s the lightest or darkest person on the planet!” she wrote. “I love my dark skin and my nickname ‘Queen of Dark,’ but I’ve never said I’m the darkest person on earth.”

On Tuesday, prior to his suspension, Lieberman reportedly apologized in an email to colleagues, acknowledging his message was “racist and sexist.”

“Prejudices and stereotypical assumptions I didn’t know I held have been exposed—to myself and to you—and I’m deeply ashamed and very sorry,” he wrote, according to The Daily Beast.

He said he had taken part in efforts at the university, hospital and elsewhere to root out discrimination, “and although tackling unconscious bias is an ongoing part of these efforts, it starts internally.”

“An apology from me to the Black community, to women, and to all of you is not enough. I’ve hurt many, and I am beginning to understand the work ahead to make needed personal changes and over time to regain your trust,” he wrote.

According to The New York Times, Lieberman also resigned from his role as executive director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute on Tuesday.

“We condemn the racism and sexism reflected in Dr. Lieberman’s tweet and acknowledge and share the hurt, sadness, confusion, and distressing emotions you may be feeling,” Thomas Smith, the new acting director of Columbia University’s psychiatry department, said in an email to staff Wednesday, according to the Times.

In January last year, the American Psychiatric Association issued a formal apology for its support of structural racism in psychiatry, acknowledging that early psychiatric practices laid the groundwork for the inequities in clinical treatment that have historically limited quality access to psychiatric care for Black and Indigenous people of color.

“Inequities in access to quality psychiatric care, research opportunities, education/training, and representation in leadership can no longer be tolerated,” it said.

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