I reached out to Mary, an old college acquaintance, to ask if she would talk to me about her experiences as a black nurse. I was concerned that asking her to talk about her history might be triggering or an imposition and I wanted to honor her willingness to share with me, so I asked if I could make a donation in her honor. She asked that I make a donation to the Alzheimer's Association in honor of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. I didn’t realize that June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. The more people know about Alzheimer's, the more action is inspired. In addition, I made a donation to The Bail Project™ National Revolving Bail Fund – “a critical tool to prevent incarceration and combat racial and economic disparities in the bail system.”
According to Minority Nurse, 9.9% of RNs are black or African American (non-Hispanic); 8.3% are Asian; 4.8% are Hispanic or Latino; 1.3% categorize themselves as two or more races; 0.4% are American Indian or Alaskan Native. There are 279,600 black RNs and 162,800 LPNs. Black or African American (non-Hispanic) nurses were more prevalent among the nurse population in the South Atlantic (9.5%), West South Central (8.8%), and East South Central (7.7%) areas than anywhere else. 14.6% of black or African-American nurses have related master’s or doctoral degrees, compared to 13.4% of white nurses.1
The profession of nursing shares a long and prestigious history of African-American nurses. Despite centuries of oppression and prejudice, Harriet Tubman, Mary Eliza Mahoney and Lillian Holland Harvey overcame adversity and fought to improve not only the lives of those around them, but the profession of nursing as a whole.2
Talking with Mary
Safety Nurse (SN): “What experiences have you had in your career as a nurse in which the color of your skin played a role?”
Mary: “Historically as a nurse working on the med surg unit, having older, white patients who assumed that if I was walking in the door with a white person, they would assume I was not the nurse, or that I was something less.”
She went on to say, “It made me feel shocked and a little angered. I was quick to correct that. It didn’t make me sad, just shock and anger.”
Growing Up with Different Races
Mary grew up in a small town in the Southwestern U.S. She started out at an all-black school, but then from the third through eighth grade she went to an all-white, private school. Then she ended up graduating from a mixed-race high school.
Mary: “I’ve been in every type of situation.”
SN: “Where were you most comfortable?”
When Mary shared, “I felt safer from being bullied in the all-white school.” I was surprised. I would have thought the opposite would have been true, but she went on to explain, “As a black person with other black people I felt more comfortable at the all-black school, but being the black girl in a black neighborhood, my dad had a better job, he made more money, I was catholic, I had longer hair, guys liked to hang around with me, I was bullied by those of the same color. They were jealous.” I understood better.
She did say that she dated a white boy for a while. “I couldn’t go to his home because his mom was racist. I was hurt by it. It left me wondering why?”
Mary attended a technical school to obtain an ADN and was an RN for five years before getting her BSN. She then went on to get an MSN in nursing leadership and management, and then she went on to obtain a post master’s nurse practitioner license. Now she’s in school for her doctorate. I joked that she and I have that much in common. We both love school!
SN “Why did you shift from the hospital to academia?”
Mary: “My thoughts when I worked in the hospital were to move up the chain of command, but no matter what I tried, charge nurse, CNE – it didn’t happen. I was on every committee, everyone thought I was the charge nurse, but I wasn’t.”
SN: “Do you think race played a role?”
Mary: “I don’t think it was race. I think it might be because I’m very honest. Sometimes that can be perceived as ‘the angry black woman’ I’ve always gotten in trouble for being honest.”
“Its’ hard for black people to know if someone doesn’t' like us because of personality or race? When we don’t get a job, either you weren’t qualified, or the person didn’t like you, but we have to add on the extra one of race.”
I was relieved when Mary told me she had never had any negative experiences with the police. She has two children, a teenaged daughter, and a son in his twenties and she said to her knowledge, neither of them has ever had a negative interaction with the police either.
SN: “What about at your university? Have you experienced racism there?”
Mary: “Going to some outside meetings, being on general education committees, it’s just a different atmosphere – being the only black person in those faculty meetings. Usually what you say isn’t as important as what your white counterparts say.”
SN: “How about in the nursing program?”
Mary: “Within our department – I feel very comfortable. Our dean is black, and our associate dean is black. Race is not an issue in our department. There was some shock when a black woman became the Dean. I don’t recall anyone being excited and I thought there should have been more excitement around that.”
SN: “What about students? Do you feel there are any racial issues for your students?”
Mary: “The old dean, I heard she treated the black students differently, but I don’t know the specifics. Now, it isn’t a problem. There may be some hidden problems. Being the most diverse division in our university, I’m comfortable and pleased with what we have.”
SN: “How have things been for you since George Floyd was murdered; since the protests began? Are you okay?”
Mary: “I can count on one hand how many people who have been sensitive on social media, who have reached out to me. I’m hurt by the person that I hang with the most hasn’t reached out to check on me. Initially what pops in my head is just to have her tell me, ‘I’m here, I’m listening, I understand.’”
SN: “How have you felt since the protests started?”
Mary: “It’s something that needs to be done. I’m happy with some of the changes that people are trying to make. There is still just so much more that needs to be done. There’s a lot more dialogue that needs to happen with certain people.”
SN: “What do you think would make a difference at your school?”
Mary: “I think it would be neat to have a diversity round table about the issues to talk about what’s going on, something like where different races get to talk about their perspectives respectfully. As a nursing instructor, I sent an email to my students that with what is going on, to be safe and remember you are in school for a profession that cares and takes care of all people. Remain professional”
SN: “Anything else you can think of?”
Mary: “What baffles me the most – I have a white friend who claims to be a Christian, she says she goes to church three times a week. She says she’s not racist, but she doesn’t want her daughter dating a black person. That’s hypocrisy, it contradicts what she’s saying. Admit what you are. The flat-out hatred and discrimination – I don’t understand it. How do you live like that?”
Racism in Nursing?
I had difficulty finding peer-reviewed research about racism in nursing. I know it exists, so I’ll keep looking and write up an article specifically on this topic. Until then ... I’d like to hear from you ...
Have you experienced racism as a nurse? If so, did it come from patients, coworkers or management?
Thank you in advance for being willing to share.