"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools." - Dr. Martin Luther King
Racism in nursing is real. It starts in nursing school, occurs on the units among nurses, managers, administrators, doctors as well as patients; intermingled in this wide web. Some white people become defensive about this topic, they refute and dismiss such acts. I did not want to pursue this topic further but was encouraged by the previous article which asks if racism in nursing is real. Yes, it is real, and happens on many levels and sometimes not so transparent.
As a black nurse, I have written some of my experiences and of course, everyone experiences racism differently. The death of George Floyd has exposed the fight that has been occurring since the black people landed in America. It is many decades later, and black people are fighting for civil rights and equality all over the world. Racism can occur during orientation, unfair hiring practices, unfair patient assignments, unfair treatment by doctors and fellow nurses, the list is endless. I just opened a little window in my world to give share about this elephant in the room, so that fellow nurses can recognize some facets of racism and call it out, say something.
Hope is not lost on this forum. I am encouraged every day by the posts about racism from both sides. Racism in nursing is analyzed from a historical, professional, and personal perspective to examine the relevance of this timely issue in our society (Paradisi, 2012). Many nurse managers’ stated that they feel unprepared to handle or discuss workplace racial issues (Paradisi, 2012). As I have witnessed, complaints about racism are downplayed or dismissed; evident on this forum as well. Many black nurses are tired of having to explain covert racism to white managers and nursing instructors. Many nurse faculties avoid addressing the issue for fear of saying the wrong thing (Paradisi, 2012). To exacerbate the racial tensions, there is a short supply of black nurse managers and nursing instructors to mitigate some of the issues. If nurses do not talk about racism openly, it will continue to persist. We cannot advocate for ourselves as nurses if we are not willing to advocate for all nurses (Paradisi, 2012).
Racism is an open secret in nursing, let's discuss and get educated.
In nursing school, I was the first black student in that school for 20 years. I could tell the faculty had no idea how to handle issues that arose with the addition of a black student. My nursing school was in a rural area with a predominantly white population. I just wandered to that community, of course, I am not even going to talk about the issues my family encountered when we rented a townhouse and my kids enrolled in school, it’s just another can of worms to open. As a nursing student, when it came to group projects, I was the last to secure a group; most patients in clinical areas and nursing homes refused me as a student. Students would go for outings on weekends or end of the semester and I was never invited.
Years later, I was the first black educator at the same college, but was faced with some issues of white students undermining and thinking I was an angry black woman despite extensive experience at the bedside and teaching at other colleges as well. During my practicum at an inner-city college, the only one to accept me, one of the educators asked where I planned to teach. I told her about my former college because it was closer to home instead of commuting one hour away. She told me that she will never teach in such a place (she is white by the way). After teaching for a short time, I understood what she meant. There was no support when it came to the students’ complaints. Instead, I was sent to the Dean a couple of times because the student did not like my recommendations. I tried to introduce some changes in the curriculum, Labs and Simulation, but was shut down, only to learn that they implemented the same changes I had suggested after I left. I also applied for a full-time position, but instead, they hired someone who was in the process of getting her master's and not much experience at the bedside. I taught all nursing levels, Simulation, lab and was well vested in the college, but I was dumped like a bag of cow manure. I have a PhD in nursing and have taught nursing at different levels. In other words, I was more than qualified for the job, but did not get it. Of course, the college can hire anyone they want, but I was qualified! Some will say it’s not racism. The truth is, it is what it is. I was bypassed. The college was predominately white so I stood no chance.
Fast forward, when I graduated, I was employed in a Long Term facility that was slightly diverse, because I was starting to wake up and realized that I needed to go to a place where I can survive and not play hide and seek. Some doctors would ask other nurses about my patients, not wanting to talk to me.
After a year, I wanted to switch to the Med-Surge unit at the same hospital. I applied several times but got no answers. The unit was constantly short of RNs and were hiring traveling nurses, but still nothing. Finally, the manager of the unit heard about me and realized that my husband had treated one of her family members. The next thing I knew I was whisked to that unit within a short time. My orientation went well until it came time to be trained for the charge nurse, CN. The current CN gave excuses not to orient me, so when they became sick, I volunteered to be one. This was also a large surgical unit and the CN did not have an assignment. Suddenly, once they saw that I was as competent as they were and I self-taught most of the tasks, everyone started taking vacations. All of a sudden it was OK for me to be in charge.
I then applied to ICU, but the manager in that unit told me that I was not experienced enough. Fast forward a month later, they hired a new grad. I went to an ICU of a regional hospital; this was a nightmare on its own. The unit was known for eating their young as well as extensive racism. The orientation was fragmented and unorganized. I was oriented by eight nurses. When I was about to be returned to Med-Surg, I was oriented by a Filipino nurse. My orientation was extended to eight more weeks but within two weeks, I was on my own and did well. The Filipino nurse guided me and allowed me to be me. She saw my potential and gave me an atmosphere conducive to learning. Most nurses discussed my treatment on this unit, but they all watched in silence and did not say, "boo". I never was given assignments on IABP, hypothermia’s or any challenging patients; but dying patients and an empty bed. I had an admission or a death every other night, which was exhausting.
I decided to move to CVICU. Three nurses applied from the ICU at the same time, but I was held back for three months and the two nurses went straight away. Once in CVICU, I had to be oriented for IABP. The nurses were puzzled why I had not been given such an assignment in a unit with IABP every week. Racism and exclusion, yes? The other two nurses had a little dinner of pizza and cards as a go away gift, but simba marched quietly alone. In CVICU, I was received with open hands. It is a diverse unit and some of the nurses embraced change for better orientation and a better working environment. My orientation was smooth and the environment conducive for learning.
As an educator and preceptor, I provide an environment conducive for learning for everyone. If I see unfair treatment, I go to the manager, and if she does not act, go to the union. Fortunately, my manager can handle racism issues and nip them in the bud. These are just a few examples. Of course, some will not see it as racism, but that is how it feels to me.
FACT: Some, not everyone, think racism is in black people’s minds, it’s not real. Yes, it is real and alive.
When You See Something, Say Something: A Fear of Talking about Racism
Is it wrong to write about my story and personal experiences? As a society, it is incumbent upon all of us to forcefully repudiate all expressions of racial hatred and bigotry. We have a long way to go to assure the equality, civil rights, and civil liberties of all people. There’s no time to waste. According to ANA President Ernest J. Grant, in a June 1st statement, he urged US nurses to, "use our voices to call for change. To remain silent is to be complicit." (Thomas, 2020).
Racism comes in many forms, from hiring, orientation on units, requests for vacations, nurse-to-nurse interaction, patients with nurses, doctors not interacting with nurses of color ... the list is endless and is so complex.
I encourage my fellow nurses to say something when they see racism and call it out like some posts on this forum. I encourage managers and administrators to open their eyes and call the shots when they suspect that racism is taking place.
The discussions about race on this forum are a window into our world. As nurses, we are as far left and far right. I am not attacking anyone but am shedding light on a topic so hidden but so right in our eyes. I encourage fellow black nurses to join organizations and other entities to influence change. As an educator, I will do my part to be a voice of reason that shall not be silenced and stay true to self. I am not an angry black woman when I try to complain or express myself. I am intelligent and hardworking ... a beautiful soul just trying to survive. Together we can! When you see something, say something!
People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other - Dr Martin Luther King
What are you doing as a nurse to make sure racism goes asystole?