What white nurses can do to help combat racism in nursing

Commonly Used Words and Phrases That Have Racist Connotations

As a member of the medical profession, you may realize that COVID-19 cases and deaths are disproportionately affecting Black counties, according to a recent study

And as a member of the human race, you are no doubt aware that Black people are feeling a huge impact as the police killing of George Floyd and often-lethal violence against other Black men and women has brought racial injustice to the forefront. 

But just knowing that race plays a role in health outcomes and that racism is alive and well in 2020 is not enough. For white nurses, this is a time to do what you can to combat racism at your workplace, even if you have to stray far from your comfort zone or dredge up unwanted feelings to do so.

“The community at large can be our allies by calling people out on their racist behavior towards others and standing with them in solidarity,” 20-year nursing veteran Shantay Carter, founder of Women of Integrity, told Minority Nurse in coverage published July 2, 2020. “BIPOC nurses would appreciate their friends and colleagues to stand up for them. We have to come together as one in the face of adversity. Just because you are not a BIPOC nurse, doesn’t mean you can’t fight against what’s morally and ethically wrong.” 

According to a YouTube video and accompanying text titled “Open Letter on Race” from strategy advisor and Columbia University lecturer Kai D. Wright, this won’t be comfortable. “As many individuals struggle with how to have thoughtful and deeply meaningful conversations about race in America, or look on from abroad, expect exchanges to be as uncomfortable, unsettling, and troubling as watching the videos that have jolted new protesters to the streets,” he said. 

To combat racism as a nurse, try these tactics from Carter, inclusion advisors and workplace experts:

Remind yourself that racism is not “a thing of the past” in nursing. Just one example: “I had instructors accuse me of cheating on tests or tell me that I would never become a nurse,” Carter remembered. Early in her career, she said, “I had patients say that they didn’t want a ‘colored’ nurse taking care of them…I have had patients call me the N-word or threaten to hit me…I also experienced medical providers speaking down to me because they assumed that I am dumb.[Or I got asked,] ‘Are you the nurse?’”

Don’t approach Black co-workers and friends with your curiosity. According to inclusion and diversity strategist Amber Cabral in Fast Company, “Right now, everyone is curious about either the civil unrest or George Floyd’s death. The instinct is to ask Black friends and colleagues for help and perspectives, but that’s not the best step. The best approach is to do your own research to understand what is happening in the world.” 

Why not go to the most accessible source, aka that Black nurse working near you? "The Black community is presently feeling overwhelmed with questions because so many people had their eyes opened to the depth of systemic racism in the U.S. and want to know more," Cabral explained. She encouraged people to take "control of their own learning through research on the internet, ordering and reading books, and watching relevant programming to learn."

Ilsa Govan, co-founder of the coaching company Cultures Connecting, summed up another tough-to-absorb idea in the publication Diversity Best Practices. “It is not People of Color’s job to teach White people about racism. We ask a lot of our colleagues [and] expect them to take responsibility for all of our education as their second, unpaid job,” she said. “For example, there is no reason Black women should have to tell people not to touch their hair and/or be expected to prove this is a phenomenon that is real in their lives and different from what White women with curly hair experience. There are decades of articles, blog posts, videos and even a book by Phoebe Robinson entitled, ‘You Can’t Touch My Hair.’”

Skip the phrase “I don’t see color.” “Many White people can’t tell you what it means to be White or say we don’t see ourselves as White,” Govan said. “Part of our privilege is being able to see ourselves as individuals unaware of our experience as a collective racial group,” she said. “When we say, ‘I don’t see color,’ to People of Color we’re essentially saying, ‘I see you as White.’”

Cabral added a further word of caution. “Comments such as ‘I don’t see color’ discount a critical aspect of a person’s identity,” she said. “Respect means ‘I see you and I will treat you well no matter your unique identity.’”

Talk about race with other white people. “When we have difficult conversations about what it means to be White with other White people, we can better name unearned advantages we’ve gotten in the workplace,” Govan added. “This helps to create an environment where inclusion doesn’t mean those who don’t fit the norm have to assimilate.” 

Be specific with offers of help. When reaching out to Black friends, acquaintances, or co-workers in these troubled times, resist the urge to ask “Are you okay?” or “How can I help?” No matter what you intend with those queries, they can “feel painfully out of touch right now,” Cabral added. “As racial injustice in this country is a centuries-old problem, broad questions like this can feel lazy instead of supportive.”

The better way to signal your support is to come up with a concrete suggestion and then deliver it. Cabral suggested explicit statements like, “Would you like some support on this project?” if you’re a co-worker and that’s in your realm of job duties. “This does not put the burden on the person impacted to provide a solution,” she added. “Ask yourself what you can offer that might be useful and extend that as a choice instead of issuing blanket statements that may require emotional wherewithal for someone who is already emotionally impacted.”

Don’t expect one Black person to act as a spokesperson. “One Black person can’t tell you how all Black people feel or think right now or in general,” Cabral said. “It is also unwise to assume what anyone needs or thinks based on what you may have seen or read online. Respecting someone means that you interact with them politely, responsibly, and without any pretenses or assumptions about their identity or needs.”

Be open to feedback. This might be excruciatingly uncomfortable for a white nurse, but it’s a critical step to combating racism, Govan explained. “One aspect of White culture is to look for the measurable outcome,” she explained. “We want to focus more on what we do than who we are. Yet reducing our own microaggressions makes a huge difference in the everyday lives of People of Color. Instead of trying not to make any mistakes, we can get better at staying open to feedback and using it as an opportunity to learn, rather than shutting down.”

If someone, white or Black, does point out an example of your white privilege or what Govan calls a “microaggression” you’ve committed, there are two go-to answers that don’t help at all. “The minute we respond ...with, ‘That’s not what I meant,’ or, ‘It was just a joke,’ People of Color are likely to stop approaching us with useful feedback,” Govan said. “This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, where we may not believe there are any problems with race in the workplace because we haven’t demonstrated openness to receiving how we contribute to these problems.”

Support people of color in meetings. According to Dana Brownlee, a senior contributor to Forbes, “Real change happens when we are willing to stick our neck out and say something publicly–not whispering in the break room or sending private chat messages on the conference call. So the next time you’re in a meeting and you can tell that the one or two people of color can’t get a word in edgewise or their comments seem to be easily minimized, offer support.”

How might that sound? “‘Jeff, if you don’t mind before we move on, I’d like to revisit Leon’s idea. I think that’s an innovative approach that we hadn’t thought about and it would be smart if we spent a bit more time unpacking that,‘” is one suggestion from Brownlee.

As for any white nurses who are also managers, Cabral added the suggestion to practice mindfulness, meaning “you are aware of the current climate and you consider it as you behave,” she said. “The current climate is one of heightened emotion, fear, and exhaustion. Now isn’t an ideal time for passing light conversations and small talk. Many Black people are emotionally exhausted by the news coming out of Minneapolis, consumed with supporting family members affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, or overwhelmed with figuring out how to best show up in support of the many causes that have arisen since George Floyd’s death. Being aware of the climate can help managers communicate responsibly in light of the circumstances.”

Most importantly, white workplace leaders should remember this: “It’s not about how you feel,” Cabral asserted. “You may very well feel fine. Good leadership is about being able to consider the impact the protests are having on those you support and communicate from that place.”

And those white individuals who work in nursing at any level should work to actively combat racism, Brownlee added. “Let me be clear for anyone who wants to pat themselves on the back for forwarding a racially-conscious social media meme in recent days. It’s not a profile in courage to comment on a horrific video, then just continue on with business as usual. In this moment, we all have some level of responsibility. As Martin Luther King famously said, ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’”