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Racism in Nursing: Is It Real?

The Anti-racism Journey

Nurses General Nursing Article   posted
jeastridge jeastridge, BSN, RN (Trusted Brand)

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

Racism is still a part of nursing just as it is in society in general. And it is still hard to talk about. But by sharing with one another, maybe we can gain new insights. Let's listen and learn.

Racism in Nursing: Is It Real?
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Hope is invented every day. - James Baldwin

Racism Among Nurses is a Real Thing

Nurses on the non-caucasian spectrum of melanin content in their skin can tell you—if you ask.  In this Summer of upheaval, we hear the headlines every day: Black lives matter, economic and racial inequities in COVID-19 care, police brutality, health care workers marching for justice for all, discrimination against immigrants—the list of troubles is long and complex. In all this turmoil, we want to make sure that we listen carefully, as nurses, to the stories our co-workers tell about their own experiences, because facts inform, but stories inspire.

Racial Discrimination: It is Real

I am a white, middle-aged nurse. I feel uncomfortable writing an article about racism experienced by my non-caucasian colleagues, but I would like to start a respectful conversation on this forum. I would like to hear your personal stories of times when you feel you might have been discriminated against because of the color of your skin.

I have been reading Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk about Race? And, it’s hard stuff. No one enters the waters of a race discussion well. We all bring mounds of baggage to the table with us. We speak from our own limited perspective and we often lack the humility to truly listen to the people around us as they share their frustration and anger about how they are treated simply because of the color of their skin. We have a hard time allowing people who have suffered discrimination for years to tell their stories. We react sometimes by being defensive, by denying their emotional response, by walking away, even by closing down.

Oluo introduces the discussion about racism by telling a story of someone walking down the street, being repeatedly hit on the arm by passersby. The victim can’t leave. They don’t have the option of walking another way and are forced to suffer the pain and discomfort each time. Finally, someone, gesticulating wildly, hits his/her arm one more time, and it is the last straw. The victim lashes out angrily. The person gesticulating reacts defensively, of course, since they meant no harm. But the harm was already done many times over and the response was a spilling out of pent up rage, anguish, and pain. Her story spoke to me, because it is hard for us to listen well, to hear uncomfortable stories, especially when they come coated in a long history of abuse, discrimination, suffering—generations of it, really. We may not be the immediate cause, but by golly, being white, we are certainly part of the system that created the injustice to start out with.

White Privilege: It is Real

As a white, American nurse, I have benefitted, all my life, from white privilege, even though I have been largely unaware of it. The easements along the way may be small things, but in the scheme of life, they count.

“White people become more likely to move through the world with an expectation that their needs be readily met.”1

The system that perpetuates discriminatory behavior toward non-Caucasians, in general, and Blacks, specifically, has produced rotten fruit. The deaths of many innocents—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd—have recently revealed anew the true danger of being Black in this country. Those dangers and disadvantages exist in the nursing community, as well. “Two studies examining racial/ethnic bias in RN promotions (Hagey 2001; Seago and Spetz 2005) found evidence of discriminatory practices that limited advancement opportunities for minority RNs."2

The systemic problems that lead to discriminatory practices in nursing are not going away overnight. Sadly, they are a product of lives lived in a system that perpetuates white wealth and advancement to the detriment of others. Changes will require a concerted effort on all our parts—especially in the white community—to be aware of inequities and do our best to put action behind our words of solidarity. Yes, we must pass laws, train and re-train, but we also must live awake and alert, watching for those unconscious biases that frame these differences from the beginning. We must find ways to learn more and to listen better. When our co-workers speak up, let’s believe them and not discount their stories of injustice. Let’s be careful of how we talk, the things we say casually, the hurtful putdowns that slide out unaware. Let’s pursue ways to help each other succeed because it is truly in our mutual success that we find the fulfillment we seek.

We Can Reinvent Hope

We can have the hope that James Baldwin assures us of in the quote at the top, but we must also let go of complacency, ignorance, and white privilege in nursing, while continuing the difficult conversations.

Will You Tell Your Story?

Maybe some of you can share your stories below. Let’s share and support one another respectfully as we try to come to a better place together in this anti-racism journey.

References

1 - What Is White Privilege, Really?

2 - Racial/Ethnic Pay Disparities among Registered Nurses (RNs) in U.S. Hospitals: An Econometric Regression Decomposition

Joy is a Faith Community Nurse. Active in a variety of nursing rolls throughout her 37 years as a nurse, she enjoys writing, cooking, and playing with her grandkids.

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2 hours ago, jeastridge said:

I would like to start a respectful conversation on this forum

That is the easy part.

Maintaining a respectful conversation is a bit trickier, but a lofty goal.

Encourage participants to listen rather than refute.  And it is far more import to listen to those with whom you disagree.

Assuming this thread gains traction, it is going to have both some insightful input, as well as some adamant denial.  The denial will be sincere, and is best understood by understanding the Dunning Kruger Effect.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2017/01/24/the-dunning-kruger-effect-shows-why-some-people-think-theyre-great-even-when-their-work-is-terrible/#45e45a6e5d7c

This effect is real, and is often cited.  The people here who downplay white privilege, or believe that everybody is the victim of some kind of discrimination, so racial discrimination is not that big a deal, or that their anecdotal experience has global implications, are sincere.  Most are well meaning.

Great article and thanks for acknowledging what many refuse to accept or believe. This thread has good intentions but it will definitely get off track as all the others have, even during civil discussions about this exact topic. Having said that, from here on out I'm just here for the comments.

Jedrnurse, BSN, RN

Specializes in school nurse.

I would revisit the title of your post. It's sort of the equivalent of "Water In Rivers: Is it Wet?"

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

On 7/20/2020 at 11:28 AM, hherrn said:

That is the easy part.

Maintaining a respectful conversation is a bit trickier, but a lofty goal.

Encourage participants to listen rather than refute.  And it is far more import to listen to those with whom you disagree.

Assuming this thread gains traction, it is going to have both some insightful input, as well as some adamant denial.  The denial will be sincere, and is best understood by understanding the Dunning Kruger Effect.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2017/01/24/the-dunning-kruger-effect-shows-why-some-people-think-theyre-great-even-when-their-work-is-terrible/

This effect is real, and is often cited.  The people here who downplay white privilege, or believe that everybody is the victim of some kind of discrimination, so racial discrimination is not that big a deal, or that their anecdotal experience has global implications, are sincere.  Most are well meaning.

I hope we can be good listeners. It is a start. Just listening.

On 7/20/2020 at 11:41 AM, NurseBlaq said:

Great article and thanks for acknowledging what many refuse to accept or believe. This thread has good intentions but it will definitely get off track as all the others have, even during civil discussions about this exact topic. Having said that, from here on out I'm just here for the comments.

Who knows? Maybe this thread will plant a seed of a question that will grow into a thought that will change one behavior. If even one person responds, it is a worthwhile discussion! Thank you for your comment. 

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

3 hours ago, Crystal-Wings said:

Racism can be anywhere. It’s not unique to nursing.

You are so right. It is not unique to nursing or the police force or politics or even churches. It happens all over the world, not just in the USA. But we still find ourselves needing to acknowledge it, to work on changes that make a difference so that we can become better people. Joy

1 hour ago, Jedrnurse said:

I would revisit the title of your post. It's sort of the equivalent of "Water In Rivers: Is it Wet?"

Truth.

6 hours ago, Crystal-Wings said:

Racism can be anywhere. It’s not unique to nursing.

Absolutely.  

Since this is a nursing forum, it is a great place to discuss racism in nursing.

BSNbeDONE, ASN, BSN, LPN, RN

Specializes in Med/Surg, LTACH, LTC, Home Health.

I have experienced all sorts of prejudices...it just so happens that I'm a nurse. Here is my list:

1: At my current employment, there is a black female physician who refuses to talk with black nurses. (The joke's on them: less work for me to do). In contrast, there is a white nurse manager who want talk to anybody, black or white.

2. I drive a high-end vehicle. When I took it to be serviced, the salesman (black man) automatically assumed I was looking for the Hyundai dealership. I told him that I hope he doesn't get paid on commission because with an assumption like that, he would have lost that sale.

3. I had a black patient who refused to let me start his IV. He sat there and endured 5 or 6 sticks from the white nurse before she convinced him to let me put the darn thing in. (One and done!). He apologized...good thing he wasn't a mind-reader.

4. My very first nursing instructor all but failed me on my starch and creased, snow-white uniform, while my white counterpart aced her wrinkly, dingy, raggedy uniform, calling it "constructive criticism".

5. The list is too long to detail the preferential treatment between staff nurses over agency/float nurses, and the utter disrespect I received as an LPN.

6. But I will admit, no one has ever bluntly displayed acts of racism to my face (other than that very first nursing instructor), unless those types of people have become so transparent over the years that ignoring them has become as automatic as breathing.

For  some reason, I've had more encounters with reverse "prejudices" than anything. Maybe it's because I'm an introvert and don't get out much; maybe it's how I present myself (so I've been told) in that I have a today-ain't-the-day look most of the time...I don't know. I personally think I am as sweet as they come.

herring_RN, ASN, BSN

Specializes in Critical care, tele, Medical-Surgical.

I would like to tell about how a colleague of mine became a hero.

One night I was CCU charge nurse and assigned the only other IABP certified nurse on the shift to a patient requiring an intra aortic balloon pump (IABP). The patient had been vacationing when he had an MI. The IABP was mostly to keep his coronary arteries open until morning when he would go to the OR for a CABG.

I heard loud voices from the room. It was the patient loudly telling his family he would not let a "colored" person in the room. His adult children said there Dad was "Old School Southern". I told the truth saying, "I'm the charge nurse. She is the only available nurse who is an expert on the machine you need to stay alive. I promise you will have expert nursing care." He finally told his kids to leave and he agreed to "let" her care for him.

I made rounds on him often. Once when I looked in she was shaving him as ordered by the surgeon. She said to him, "You are lucky I like you. If I didn't I would pull the hair out when I take these electrodes off." He actually began teasing her and smiling.

In the morning when they came to take him to the OR he asked her to go with him. She was already going to as we gave in-person report to the OR nurse. Then he said to me, "Be sure to have her take care of me after surgery. I was so pleased and proud of my friend and of the patient too, but told him he would go to a post surgical ICU and be assigned an RN expert at caring for people after open heart surgery.

The next night we went to visit him. He thanked her. His kids were thankful too. 

PS: I was an LVN for many years before earning my RN. Fortunately most coworkers were respectful and I respected them too.

On 7/20/2020 at 8:52 PM, BSNbeDONE said:

 I have a today-ain't-the-day look most of the time...I don't know. I personally think I am as sweet as they come.

That's called a resting B&%^$ face. I used to smile most of the time but in today's environment, I'm slowly but surely perfecting that look myself.

herring_RN, ASN, BSN

Specializes in Critical care, tele, Medical-Surgical.

As I aged my relaxed face gave me the worried or unhappy look that was not there when I was under 50. 

I once worked with a wonderful RN who was as good as any nurses and had the confidence to go with her expertise. Once a new head nurse (term from olden days) evaluating her had no choice but to giver "Five" on all items, but scored her a 4 on a 1-5, five being best about appearance.

She asked, "Why not a five" and was told, "Your elbows are dirty." She answered that it was her skin color and was NOT dirty. 

When she told me I remembered my mother putting her elbows in a cut lemon after squeezing the juice out.

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

5 hours ago, Workitinurfava said:

You can only talk about racism to those willing to listen, understand and care. 

Well said. Thank you. Joy

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

On 7/20/2020 at 8:52 PM, BSNbeDONE said:

I have experienced all sorts of prejudices...it just so happens that I'm a nurse. Here is my list:

1: At my current employment, there is a black female physician who refuses to talk with black nurses. (The joke's on them: less work for me to do). In contrast, there is a white nurse manager who want talk to anybody, black or white.

2. I drive a high-end vehicle. When I took it to be serviced, the salesman (black man) automatically assumed I was looking for the Hyundai dealership. I told him that I hope he doesn't get paid on commission because with an assumption like that, he would have lost that sale.

3. I had a black patient who refused to let me start his IV. He sat there and endured 5 or 6 sticks from the white nurse before she convinced him to let me put the darn thing in. (One and done!). He apologized...good thing he wasn't a mind-reader.

4. My very first nursing instructor all but failed me on my starch and creased, snow-white uniform, while my white counterpart aced her wrinkly, dingy, raggedy uniform, calling it "constructive criticism".

5. The list is too long to detail the preferential treatment between staff nurses over agency/float nurses, and the utter disrespect I received as an LPN.

6. But I will admit, no one has ever bluntly displayed acts of racism to my face (other than that very first nursing instructor), unless those types of people have become so transparent over the years that ignoring them has become as automatic as breathing.

For  some reason, I've had more encounters with reverse "prejudices" than anything. Maybe it's because I'm an introvert and don't get out much; maybe it's how I present myself (so I've been told) in that I have a today-ain't-the-day look most of the time...I don't know. I personally think I am as sweet as they come.

Love your last line. It made me smile. Everyone's experiences are their own and everyone's feelings are their own. We can only hope to be able to listen to one another better and learn from each other. Thank you for sharing. Joy

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

9 hours ago, herring_RN said:

I would like to tell about how a colleague of mine became a hero.

One night I was CCU charge nurse and assigned the only other IABP certified nurse on the shift to a patient requiring an intra aortic balloon pump (IABP). The patient had been vacationing when he had an MI. The IABP was mostly to keep his coronary arteries open until morning when he would go to the OR for a CABG.

I heard loud voices from the room. It was the patient loudly telling his family he would not let a "colored" person in the room. His adult children said there Dad was "Old School Southern". I told the truth saying, "I'm the charge nurse. She is the only available nurse who is an expert on the machine you need to stay alive. I promise you will have expert nursing care." He finally told his kids to leave and he agreed to "let" her care for him.

I made rounds on him often. Once when I looked in she was shaving him as ordered by the surgeon. She said to him, "You are lucky I like you. If I didn't I would pull the hair out when I take these electrodes off." He actually began teasing her and smiling.

In the morning when they came to take him to the OR he asked her to go with him. She was already going to as we gave in-person report to the OR nurse. Then he said to me, "Be sure to have her take care of me after surgery. I was so pleased and proud of my friend and of the patient too, but told him he would go to a post surgical ICU and be assigned an RN expert at caring for people after open heart surgery.

The next night we went to visit him. He thanked her. His kids were thankful too. 

PS: I was an LVN for many years before earning my RN. Fortunately most coworkers were respectful and I respected them too.

What a great story. Perspectives and prejudices are changed one person at a time. One story at a time. Legislation and laws can only take us so far. The heart changes are harder...Thank you for sharing with us. Joy

Hi  jeastridge, BSN, RN

Thanks to such a timely topic, its interesting reading from the other sides point of view. I was smiling as I was reading the comments, racism is everywhere, but what can we do as nurses to make it an equal playing field. How can we make the situation better. Bravo!

simba and mufasa 

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

7 hours ago, simba and mufasa said:

Hi  jeastridge, BSN, RN

Thanks to such a timely topic, its interesting reading from the other sides point of view. I was smiling as I was reading the comments, racism is everywhere, but what can we do as nurses to make it an equal playing field. How can we make the situation better. Bravo!

simba and mufasa 

Thanks for your comment. Yes, many of us are looking for ways to examine ourselves, our own attitudes and how we might need to change. I'm glad it made you smile! Joy

This is a rather vague/rambling comment, but a lot of times I feel like my white counterparts got into the specialties they wanted right out of nursing school, but this wasn’t the same for me. Even though I am grateful to have a nursing job and work in an SNF/LTC, it feels like I’m the only one and I face a LOT of criticism from those that don’t understand. I get called lazy and unmotivated which could not be the furthest from the truth. Hospital jobs don’t count my experience as “real experience”, and I am black and a lot of my coworkers are black too and sometimes discreetly I think it’s a way of trying to “shut out” black nurses from being a part of the staff. My mom used to be the only black nurse on her hospital unit. During clinical rotations in hospitals sometimes there were one or two black nurses, and oftentimes there were none. 

jeastridge, BSN, RN

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

On 7/21/2020 at 8:14 PM, thebratpack said:

This is a rather vague/rambling comment, but a lot of times I feel like my white counterparts got into the specialties they wanted right out of nursing school, but this wasn’t the same for me. Even though I am grateful to have a nursing job and work in an SNF/LTC, it feels like I’m the only one and I face a LOT of criticism from those that don’t understand. I get called lazy and unmotivated which could not be the furthest from the truth. Hospital jobs don’t count my experience as “real experience”, and I am black and a lot of my coworkers are black too and sometimes discreetly I think it’s a way of trying to “shut out” black nurses from being a part of the staff. My mom used to be the only black nurse on her hospital unit. During clinical rotations in hospitals sometimes there were one or two black nurses, and oftentimes there were none. 

I hear you and I believe you. And I am sorry. I hope and pray and want to help work toward making things better.

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