March 9, 2017

I Am Black. I Am A Nurse.

I don't represent all African Americans, nor are my personal experiences universal. I'm writing this post as an African American nurse working in Orlando, Florida. I'm writing about my perspective on how my blackness affects my job as a nurse. Now, we can begin...

My skin color is the first thing some individuals focus on when I walk into the room and introduce myself as their caregiver. I'm fully aware that, as humans, we judge each other based on our personal preferences and life experiences. In my opinion, those innocent moments of judgment can morph into racial bias in some individuals. I'm a pragmatic person. I recognize that not everyone has to like me. But what I find incredibly unsettling is that I'm constantly reminded that I'm African American, and nothing else about me or my character will ever be considered other than that fact.

Here's some background for you. Yeah, I've been called the n-word before. The first time was in elementary school. A boy named Brandon said it, pushed me, and ran away. I was born and have been raised in Florida. I know Florida. I know its history (google the Ocoee Massacre) and its culture. There are still "black" parts of town and "white" parts of town. Don't let the Barack Obama presidency fool you. Yes, that was a great historical experience, but that didn't abolish racism. Racism is everywhere, even in healthcare. Racial slurs are not something of the past. They are the present and judging from the news, the future. I know there are racists in the world, I'm not naive. But what I didn't expect to occur was the blatant display of racism, while I was merely attempting to care for these individuals. You came to the hospital, sick and ill. I'm a nurse, I work here. Our paths only crossed because you came here.

It was a random Tuesday, I had received report and walked into my patient's room to introduce myself. The patient was a young man, and alongside him was his wife and mother. I washed my hands, smiled, started my introduction, and while I was attempting to write my name on the dry-erase board, the mother interrupted me and said, "Can we speak to your boss? This isn't going to work, honey." I didn't know what I had done wrong, but I recapped the marker and slowly moved toward the sink to re-wash my hands and exit. As I turned around to exit the room, I remembered I left my pen and the plan of care on the counter. I quickly turned around to grab the items and heard the patient say, "I don't want this n-word taking care of me. They better get this bitch out of here." The patient and guests seem surprised I had abruptly turned around and overhead the comment, but they had no shame on their faces. They were completely content with what had occurred. I'm not going to lie, it shook me for a second. I grabbed my pen and left, blank-faced and lost in indescribable emotions. I wanted to say and do many things but I needed this job. I didn't know what I could say or what would get me fired. So I said nothing, which was its own form of personal humiliation and self-betrayal. I don't know where you live but Florida is an "at-will" employment state. Meaning, your employer can terminate your employment relationship for any reason at all. Let that sink in for a minute and now try to understand why I was so hesitant.

I slowly walked up to my charge nurse and told her I needed to speak to her about a patient request. I wanted to keep the context neutral until we got into the office. I didn't want to discuss this in the hallway. I was already about to cry, and I didn't want my co-workers to see this whole thing play out. I didn't know what would happen next, but to be honest with you, I assumed management would at least support me and explain to the patient and his guests that this type of language would not be tolerated. Nevertheless, I relayed the series of events to my charge nurse. I made a point not to get emotional and to simply state the facts. I feel when people get emotional, their message can potentially get buried. I grew up in a house filled with emotional people. I work very hard at controlling my emotions. I feel certain thoughts require proper processing, and I work very had to make sure I'm professional at work.

Do you know what happened next? She gave me a look of sheer indifference. It was something I've never entirely gotten over. This woman hired me as a nurse technician, trained and educated me regularly, we were even in the same social circles, and this was her response? That was even more jarring than the patient encounter. Long story short, my charge nurse spoke to the patient and the guests. Upon her exiting the room, she stated (in front of a few other nurses), "Let's change the assignment and keep them happy. I think you're just a little sensitive about this whole thing. They didn't mean anything by it Nacole." Do you know, the following two days, all the African American nursing staff had to be re-assigned? You could chalk this up to misinformed people who only represent a small percentage of individuals. But, that sadly isn't true. This type of thing occurs in the nursing profession often to people of color. Oh, and please don't think this was a one-hit wonder. I've been a nurse for over five years now and this situation of "no black nurses" has happened a handful of times. And every time, management pretends it's a customer service issue. They continue to say that it's about calming both parties and keeping everyone happy. It's NOT about that! It's about the acceptance of racism in light of health care. When management grants these requests, the individuals become more emboldened and continue the behavior.

Fast forward two years later. I was sitting beside a nurse practitioner and the floor charge nurse one night. They were discussing hiring more individuals since we were short staffed and needed help. The conversation was bland and boring, up until I heard the nurse practitioner say, "I wouldn't hire someone with an afro or dreadlocks. It's unprofessional. They could be gangbangers or something." What. The. Hell?! Yeah, there are people in the world that relate a hairstyle to criminal activity. Not surprisingly, the hairstyles were African American in origin. Oh, and did I mention I was sitting an arm's length away? My presence, like the previously mentioned incident, was of no concern. It was as if I was invisible. My skin color and culture was being judged, and there I was, sitting right there, lost in it all. I ended up going to management and discussing the implications of the conversation I had overheard. Like before, I got a "sorry for the misunderstanding" and that was it. I never knew if they were or were not going to hire any more African American people who had those distinct hair characteristics. And, how did I slip through the cracks considering their preferences? I'm not a victim, and I don't need sympathy. I'm just an African American nurse sharing a few stories. I want people out there to understand that racism is alive and well. Racism occurs at all levels of education and income.

Silence, compliance, and intolerance are the "new" forms of racism. They're the quieter, camouflaged versions. Again, I'm not stating that this happens to all African Americans who work in the nursing community. I can only speak to my own experiences. But, I've had many minority nurses tell me stories just like mine. They message me about the difficulties they face in the nursing professional and their efforts for advancement being obstructed due to their skin color. My education, my kindness, my care, my credentials, and my passion for nursing are all non-factors. The only factor that is considered is that I'm African American. It is sad, frustrating, and it's something I'm reminded of often by patients, their loved ones, and even health care professionals I work with.

What can we do? Understand that these are events and not a representation of an entire group of individuals. There are people in this world who find this behavior deplorable and will see you for more than your skin color. Seek these people out and create a positive nursing network. Continue to be who you are and continue to care for your community. Don't let moments stop you from wanting to help others. Don't let these moments devour your passionate for health care. I'm going to be honest with you, experiences like this can be hiccups for some, and outright barriers for others. Keep working hard, and hopefully, you will overcome them. Being upset and frustrated is expected, but don't allow those feelings to negatively impact your life.

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