Washington Post style usually does not include the title “Dr.” because so many types of professionals claim the title that it doesn’t convey information to the reader about their qualifications; we instead specify their profession or degree. This article makes an exception to that style because of the context of the event being written about.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the meeting as a city council meeting. It was a zoning meeting. The article has been corrected.
Dr. Carrie Rosario joined the Greensboro, N.C., zoning meeting as soon as it began on Monday. She stayed on Zoom for almost four hours — her two young kids buzzing around in the background — waiting for the council to move through its agenda. It would be worth it, she told herself: A new development could threaten the drinking water in her neighborhood. A professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a doctorate in public health, Rosario wanted to weigh in.
When the council finally turned its attention to the issue, Rosario introduced herself with her professional title, “Dr. Rosario.” A zoning commissioner called her “Mrs.” She corrected him, and he apologized.
Then a second commissioner, Tony Collins, addressed her the same way.
“It’s Dr. Rosario. Thank you, sir,” Rosario, who is Black, said.
“If Mrs. Rosario has something — ”
“Dr. Rosario,” she repeated.
“Well, you know, I’m sorry. Your name says on here, ‘Carrie Rosario,’” said Collins, who is White. “Hey, Carrie.”
“It’s Dr. Rosario.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Collins replied.
The back and forth continued for almost a minute, in an exchange that quickly went viral.
On Tuesday night, the city council voted unanimously to remove Collins from his position. Councilmember Sharon Hightower called his behavior “very demeaning” and “quite disturbing” in an emailed statement to The Lily. Hightower, who is Black, is one of the three women of color on the nine-person city council.
“Her accomplishment was flippantly dismissed. I felt like if she had been white, it would not have gone this way.” The only acceptable recourse, she wrote, was to have Collins removed.
Collins apologized in a statement to Rosario and members of the city council in an email shared with The Lily. His conversation with Rosario was “out of line,” he wrote. “There is no good excuse for my interaction with Dr. Rosario so I will not try to offer one. Citizens deserve better.” (Collins did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.)
Many women with doctorates, and especially women of color, say they are used to having their credentials questioned. Even the most prominent women aren’t immune: A December Wall Street Journal editorial challenged first lady Jill Biden’s decision to refer to herself as “Dr. Biden,” a title she earned when she became a doctor of education. In response, female academics around the world, including Rosario, changed their Twitter handles to reflect their doctoral credentials.
Rosario, 38, sees her title as an essential tool. As a Black woman who says she looks young for her age, people are predisposed to dismiss her opinion and expertise, she said. “It adds legitimacy to what I’m saying,” Rosario said, especially when she’s discussing a matter relevant to public health, as she was on Monday night.
Collins made a deliberate choice to ignore her title, she said. He had heard her correct the other official — and she provided multiple opportunities for him to adjust his language. She felt compelled to say something.
“This is a title I earned," Rosario said. "It’s not one that someone handed to me.”
Rosario started working on her doctorate in 2011, with a full-time job and a 3-year-old son. A few years into her program, she had her second son. Rosario would wake up as early as 3 a.m. to breastfeed and pump breast milk for the day, she said, sometimes staying up until midnight to finish her doctoral work.
“I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it,” Rosario said. “There were so many times when I thought, ‘Am I making the right decision?’” She would consider all the other things she could have been doing with her time instead, she said — all the moments she was missing with her sons.
Her mom, Janet Kennedy, kept her going. Kennedy earned a master’s degree in education and always wanted to get her doctorate. She tried, Rosario said, but with three kids and limited financial resources, she never got all the way there. When Rosario started working toward her own doctoral degree, she said, her mom would post about her good grades on Facebook and listen to her read her papers out loud.
At her graduation in 2016, Rosario found Kennedy in the crowd as she walked across the stage. Her mom was crying. Later, when she watched her family’s graduation video, Rosario heard her mom whisper to Rosario’s two sons.
“There she goes,” she told them, pointing to Rosario. “There she goes.”
By now, Rosario is used to defending her professional credentials. Academic colleagues are sometimes dismissive of people — particularly women — who call themselves “doctors” when they hold doctoral degrees other than PhDs, she said. Outside of academia, she said, plenty of people make offhand remarks about her title, saying “You don’t look like a doctor” or “You’re too young to be a doctor.”
Women of color “face lots of judgments on their value and what they are capable of doing,” Rosario said. After they achieve something big, she said, the question becomes, “Did they actually do it? Is it legitimate?” As a Black woman, Rosario said, these kinds of comments can wear on your health. Sometimes she wonders why people can’t just celebrate her success. To Rosario, the “Dr.” title is a celebration of her accomplishments — and the people who helped her achieve them.
Kennedy passed away in February. And while Rosario can’t talk to her mom about her decision to stand up to Collins, she said, she is pretty sure she knows exactly what she would say.
“She would have wanted me to advocate for myself and the use of my title,” she said.
On Monday’s Zoom call, Collins told Rosario that her title “didn’t matter.”
It mattered to Rosario, she said — and it would have mattered to her mom.