Nursing and Racism: Are We Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution, or Perhaps Both?

One of the first “lessons” in my now-long-ago nursing education was “the nursing process.” This was in the early 1960s, almost a decade before anyone spoke of nursing theory, but the University of Hawaii (my alma mater) had modeled the curriculum on that of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) which was designed around the ideas of Dorothy Johnson. These ideas would ultimately become known as Dorothy Johnson’s Behavioral Systems Model (See also the history of the UCLA School of Nursing, pgs 43-48).

Of course this same problem-solving process is widely used in many walks of life, and many see it as a mere pragmatic outline for making good decisions and forming appropriate action – a necessary process but several degrees removed from developing foundational knowledge of the discipline. In reflecting on the situation in which we find ourselves today I fear that as a discipline we have not adequately faced the realities before us as a discipline and as a society – both as a problem, and as a health experience. As I wrote in my January 20th post titled “Decolonizing Nursing”

Despite the fact that race and racism so repeatedly rise to the surface with a clear intent to address this issue, there is typically little or no substantive discussion that begins to reach deep down into explanations or understanding of what is really going on (see https://nursology.net/2020/01/14/decolonizing-nursing/)

I know that I am not alone in recognizing this challenge, but I continue to wonder — when and how will this begin to change? This is not merely a “political” matter — it is a matter of life and death, of health and sickness. It is a pandemic of proportions far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been infecting our lives for decades. In recent weeks we have witnessed the public killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, of Ahmaud Arbery shot down while jogging in February, and Breonna Tayler, an EMT with plans of becoming a nurse, killed by police in her own home in March. Then just a few days before this post published, the killing in Atlanta of 27-year-old Rayshard Brookes, shot in the back several times by police after indicating that he was able and willing to walk home to his sister’s house.

These tragic murders in plain sight, coupled with widespread recognition of the over-proportioned number of Black and Brown people suffering from COVID-19 – give us a glimmer of opportunity to finally act. The calls for change are so pervasive and so sustained, that those of us ready and willing to make change have a real opportunity to do so. And so I return to my earliest nursing education and the foundational ideas that have been baked into my very fabric – the processes of active listening and observation that are vital to assessing and “diagnosing” a problem(1).

One of the notable signs that appears in all of the protests says “I see you, I hear you.” For me, this is a key to meeting the challenge before us. It starts with our interactions among our own colleagues. Throughout my nursing career I have seen many Black nurse colleagues come and go, and every single one of the nursing faculty I have served with have repeatedly decried how “difficult” it is to recruit and retain Black nurse faculty. Yet all too rarely have I witnessed concerted, deliberate efforts by the predominantly White(2) faculty to stop, step away from our privilege, seek the authentic stories of our Black colleagues, and actively hear (understand) their experience. Equally egregious is the fact that there are myriads of situations that, viewed through a lens of anti-racist awareness, could be instantly recognized as potentially harmful to a Black person, even dangerous. But over and over again we turn a blind eye, and fail to act. I have all too often been just as complicit in all of this as anyone else – we have all been caught up, and participate in a systemic web of injustice. And I suspect that this pattern is not unique to academics – that it runs deep in every setting where nursing is practiced.

Further, there is the all-too often deflection of the problem by the insistence that the “problem” is not unique to Black people – that all lives matter. Of course all lives matter and Black people are not the only ones who suffer injustice and discrimination. But this sentiment turns the lens away from the specific voices, experiences, and challenges faced Black people. We can listen to all people – but until we listen to, and sincerely seek to understand, Black people and recognize the experiences of trauma and harm that Black people uniquely suffer, and how we participate, we will not be able to truly understand the problem.

It is undeniable that the prejudice and hate toward Black Americans, and people of African descent in many other countries is profound and amplified by the historical trauma of slavery and in the United States, the fall-out of the civil war fought to end slavery in the United States. I hear many White nurses in my circle expressing true outrage about this situation and we are all sincere in our desire to see it change, yet the problem persists. Until we White nurses face the reality of our privilege and the injustices that flow from this, until we learn ways to step away from our privilege and engage in serious anti-racism work, until we create spaces in which we can authentically engage with our Black colleagues to understand the problem, the injustices in our own house will remain.

We can all shift in the direction of being part of the solution. There are signals that point us in the direction of actions we can all take – particularly those of us who are White – to seize this moment, start to address the scourge of racism in our own house, and make real change. The circumstance of the COVID-19 shift to virtual reality offers ample opportunities for all of us to engage in antiracism work! Here are a few examples that I can personally recommend – if you start searching, you will find many many others!

  • Nurse Caroline Ortiz organized a “platica” (Spanish for discussion) held on March 9th over Zoom. Caroline recorded the session, which you can access here: https://vimeo.com/397047962. You can organize similar discussions – we are all now expert Zoom organizers!
  • African-American activist Nanette Massey holds a weekly discussion with White people from all walks of life to discuss the ideas in Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk About Race.” I have participated in many of these informative, interesting and affirming Sunday discussions. Learn more here.
  • The “Everyday Feminism” website has pages and pages of content on ethnicity and racism – https://everydayfeminism.com/tag/race-ethnicity/. Just browsing titles is a rich experience! Their 2014 post of 10 Simple Ways White People Can Step Up to Fight Everyday Racism is precisely relevant today!
  • Invest 1.5 hours into Everyday Feminism’s founder, Sandra Kim’s excellent session on “Why Healing from Internalized Whiteness is a Missing Link in White People’s Anti-Racism Work.” White nurses can benefit especially, but knowing that White people are facing this challenge, and how this can happen, can be helpful for everyone.
  • Practice generosity of spirit toward your nursing colleagues – each of us are being challenged in this moment to examine our own attitudes, actions and words. Many of us are just starting on this journey. This demands kindness and understanding toward one another as we work together, often in uncomfortable situations, to make meaningful change. Let us call forth the best we can be, and support one another with compassion and understanding when we mis-step.
  • Consider how application of many tenets of our own nursing theories can be activated in the quest to address racism. Consider Peplau’s approach to meaningful interpersonal relationships, the very important insights from Margaret Newman “Health as Expanded Consciousness,” and any one of several theories of caring such as Watson’s Theory of Human Caring, or Boykin and Schoenhofer’s Theory of Nursing as Caring, While these and other nursing theories were not created specifically to address racism and social injustice, we certainly can draw on their wisdom to bring nursing perspectives to the center in our anti-racism work.
  • Follow the opportunities provided by the Nursology Theory Collective to join discussions focused on creating equity in nursing
  • Find, read and cite nursing literature authored by nurses of color. Learn the names of these authors, and seek out their work. If you teach, make sure you include this literature in your syllabi(3).
  • Explore the work of scholars in other disciplines who are also committed to anti-racism work. The “Scholarly Kitchen” blog posts regularly on matters of racism and discrimination – see their June 15, 2020 post titled Educating Ourselves: Ten Quotes from Researchers Exploring Issues Around Race
  • Make your own video, as a nurse, speaking to these issues and how your values, ideas, nursing perspectives inform your actions to fight racism! Post it on YouTube or Vimeo .. and then share it with us – we can consider posting on Nursology.net or another nursing website. See this wonderful video (below) by de-cluttering expert Mel Robertson for inspiration!
Notes
  1. Ultimately the concept of active listening formed a basis for the essential processes of “critical reflection” and “conflict transformation” in my heuristic theory of Peace and Power.
  2. See this excellent article from the Center for the Study of Social Policy on the capitalization of the terms “Black” and “White,” which I consulted in refining this post: Nguyễn, A. T., & Pendleton, M. (2020, March 23). Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize “Black” and “White” | Center for the Study of Social Policy. Center for the Study of Social Policy. https://cssp.org/2020/03/recognizing-race-in-language-why-we-capitalize-black-and-white/
  3. See Kagan, P. N., Smith, M. C., & Chinn, P. L. (Eds.). (2014). Philosophies and Practices of Emancipatory Nursing: Social Justice as Praxis. Routledge. This collection includes many of the leading authors, including many nurse scholars of color, whose work focuses on social justice.

4 thoughts on “Nursing and Racism: Are We Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution, or Perhaps Both?

  1. Dr. Chinn, thank you so much for this post. I am so happy to hear your perspective and check out these resources you share!

    I’m a Brown woman epidemiologist, and I would like to add to your list of resources while also amplifying the voice of my colleague, Dr. Kechi Iheduru-Anderson, who has been studying the problem of, “How to eliminate racism in nursing globally?” She is lead author on a book chapter that just came out named, “Proposal for a Global Agenda to Eliminate Racism in Nursing”: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/S2055-364120200000021004/full/html?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Innovations_in_Higher_Education_Teaching_and_Learning_TrendMD_1

    All of the resources you provided are excellent, and would also add that specific ones related to nursing and nursing education are contained in the reference list to that chapter. Dr. Iheduru-Anderson is the Nursing Program Director at Central Michigan University, and is interested in anti-racist education in nursing. To speak to that specifically, I want to call attention to a particular study about a successful program at University of Washington where those who led the program worked with Dr. DiAngelo, who has expertise in anti-racism work:
    Addressing Whiteness in Nursing Education: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20693833/

    I have worked on a few studies with Dr. Iheduru-Anderson. She has many other works that are interesting and insightful. She has expertise in qualitative research, and I encourage everyone to check out her peer-reviewed publications: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=OrjXRhsAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=sra

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thank you Peggy, as always your comments are profound, timely, and provide resources. you also continue to expand our knowledge, and even more importantly, our consciousness about our own behaviors and implicit biases . afaf

    Liked by 2 people

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