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A Conversation About Racism for All Health Care Providers

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”– Martin Luther King, Jr. By: Brad Snyder, NP and Barb Dehn, NP Bio: We became friends while volunteering at FAME Hospital in Tanzania several years ago. As the fight for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement evolved, […]

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“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

By: Brad Snyder, NP and Barb Dehn, NP

Bio: We became friends while volunteering at FAME Hospital in Tanzania several years ago. As the fight for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement evolved, we both felt compelled to reach out to all of our healthcare colleagues to start and continue a dialogue on racism that impacts our patients, our communities and our colleagues. 

We Need to Do better

Our world is in peril. In this unprecedented moment two global pandemics are coalescing to reveal some of the deepest wounds in this country: a broken healthcare system and systemic racism. As nurses and  nurse practitioners (NPs) we are inundated with conflicting COVID guidelines and nebulous information about how best to care for our communities, while simultaneously feeling the streets tremble as millions rally in the fight for racial justice. While there is no doubt that we are doing our very best to tackle COVID, when it comes to racial justice – We Need To Do Better!  We are talking to ourselves and specifically those of us who comprise the vast majority of all healthcare professions – that’s right, white clinicians and providers. We all have a responsibility to do better, not just now, but for the long-term.

To Our Colleagues: Black, Brown, Indigenous and People of Color 

We know you are hurting. We acknowledge your resilience as you muster up the strength to go to work and give of yourselves given the current state of our country. While we will never know what it’s like to walk in your shoes, our hope is that after reading this article more people will do the hard work of recognizing how they perpetuate racial injustice and work to fix it. We admire your courage and recognize the invaluable roles you embody as clinicians, leaders, educators, advocates, and role models. Please know that we see you and we’ve got your back. We will fight side by side with you for justice. Your lives matter to us. 

This is About Black Lives

            We are writing this as two white NPs, specifically to our white nurse and NP colleagues, and also to all of our colleagues in healthcare, in every role, who work tirelessly to save lives. We are not experts by any means, on the contrary, we feel like we’re only dipping our toes in as we try to figure out how best to show up. We also want to be clear about what this article is about – supporting Black Lives – Because They Matter. This is about starting an uncomfortable and necessary discussion about the inequitable systems that may be invisible to us as white people, and examining the realities and impact of our own internal biases and the realization that our actions or inactions are contributing to and perpetuating racism. 

Our Collective Discomfort

If you’re feeling uncomfortable, let us reassure you that we are too. We don’t pretend to have the answers, but we do know that diving deep into the pursuit of more understanding and the difficult work of honest, inward reflection are essential steps. And while it’s ok to acknowledge that this is hard, we must also admit that we as white people and white clinicians, we get a pass. We are so used to deferential treatment that it seems like the norm and well, just the way it is. Most of what we take for granted is not experienced by Black, Brown or other People of Color – this is our white privilege and it’s real and it’s pervasive and it’s unfair.

As white healthcare providers and as white people, we have been wearing some pretty thick blinders that have been shielding us from acknowledging tragic truths for far too long. For some it feels right to rip off the blinders and completely immerse yourselves in this work of changing the status quo, while others may start with a deep dive into examining their beliefs and biases and start with the tough internal work. There are many paths leading toward justice. No matter how you walk this path, the goal is the same – We as white nurses, clinicians and providers, must confront racism and do the hard work to change this reality.  

For white people, confronting racism is uncomfortable; for Black people it’s a battle far too often resulting in death. For those of us who are serious about doing our part, experiencing some discomfort is the least we can do to show solidarity with Black, Brown, Indigenous and other People of Color who are friends, family, colleagues, patients and our larger community. It’s a choice for us, it’s not a choice for them. Merely thinking and reading about this is not enough – We are calling upon you to take action. 

The Problem with “All Lives Matter”

            Of course, all lives matter. We wouldn’t have dedicated our lives and careers to helping others if we didn’t believe this statement.  However, as white healthcare providers we never have had to question or wonder if our lives matter. We take this for granted. Black Lives Matter does not mean that “only” Black lives matter, but rather it draws direct attention to the fact that America has repeatedly implemented structures to oppress Black people starting with slavery, then Jim Crow Laws, police brutality and the alarming reality that Black people are imprisoned five times more than whites.

Black people get disproportionately profiled, targeted and killed by the police, face housing discrimination and earn less pay.  As clinicians and people entrusted to care for others especially, we must examine the science and admit that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) experience worse health outcomes, more maternal mortality, more illness and premature death compared to white people.1,2  Remember, what’s happening to Black folks is not new – the movement is gaining traction and more white people are waking up to these realities. This is why we explicitly say “Black Lives Matter” because this is where our attention needs to be focused. 

Here are a few analogies. When nurses’ unions fight for better pay, they are not suggesting that social workers shouldn’t also get better pay, they are focusing on a particular issue that needs attention. Think of it like triage. Right now, there are many critical needs in the Black community which need to be addressed immediately because people are literally dying and being killed. This doesn’t negate essential issues in other communities, rather support for the Black community should be a priority when considering energy and resources. The reality is our lives are not equal and our experiences are far from fair. 

Letting Go of Denial

Pervasive racism might be difficult to grasp, but it is our shared reality. Fortunately, there are many resources including Brené Brown’s podcast with Dr. Ibram Kendi, the author of How to be an Antiracist to help illuminate many of the issues.  To paraphrase Dr. Kendi’s wisdom “You have no umbrella, and you don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas, because the ideas themselves lead you to believe that you’re dry. Then someone comes along and says, ‘You know what, you’re wet, and these ideas are still raining on your head. Here’s an umbrella.’ You can be like, ‘Thank you! I didn’t even realize I was drenched.’”

As white people we have the privilege of being able to “look the other way” when confronted with the harsh realities of racism or disengage when we feel it’s magnitude. Perhaps, like many, you find your mind searching for thoughts to make you feel a little more comfortable like “slavery was a long time ago” or “I’m not racist, I have Black friends” or “I didn’t do this, why is it my responsibility to fix it?” 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just try for a moment to imagine what People of Color are feeling, and they don’t have the luxury of “looking the other way.” Denial of these problems directly halts progress towards justice and in many ways reverses the arduous work that has already been done. 

What White People, Specifically Nurses and Clinicians Can Do

If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But, if you’ve come, because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson

To quote Dr. Andrea Jackson, “Nurses are in a very unique position to immediately start working to be anti-racist. A good place to start is by going into work tomorrow and listening honestly and openly to your Black patients.”

With pervasive, justified mistrust in the healthcare system among communities of color, we can start here and have a direct impact – and you know we as nurses and Nurse Practitioners are great listeners and like to have direct impact. We must also listen to our colleagues of color and not only “make space at the table” but actually do the work of collectively redefining what the table looks like, bringing in more voices and supporting their ideas. We must restructure how things are done in our homes, clinics and organizations because we live in a system doing everything in its power to convince us that white is superior to black and superior to brown and a little bit more special and entitled.  

We implore you to take a deep breath, call on your courage and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Pull down your walls, forget the political soundbites and the echo chambers of social media for a moment and tap into your humanity. Tap into the feelings you had when you decided to care for others. This work starts in the heart, not the head. From this place of courageous compassion, we can find the energy to be part of the solution and then act! 

Getting Started:

  • Increase your awareness by listening and learning with an open mind and open heart. 
  • Educate yourself about these issues without burdening our BIPOC colleagues to teach us and make it easy or absolve us from our collective discomfort and guilt. 
  • Have difficult conversations in your home and community with family and friends. 
  • Be actively “Antiracist” by calling out racist ideas, policies and actions at home, work and in our communities (see Dr. Ibram Kendi’s book below)
  • Don’t just have the books on your shelf – Read them and then start changing your behaviors.
  • Get involved by joining a committee, professional organization or community group that’s devoted to racial equity.
  • Work alongside your colleagues of Color as an ally to make your organization arc toward justice.
  • Listen honestly and openly to your Black, Brown and Patients of Color to directly counter the inequities of our healthcare system and to show them that their lives matter.

Resources

We have compiled some resources that we’ve been using to help get us started and want to share them with you. These are just the tip of the iceberg in the journey toward more understanding of racism and what we can all do. This is the moment to do what is right. This moment is our opportunity to rise up and stand united against racism.  We must do better and we must start with ourselves. We owe this to our friends, colleagues, patients and communities so they can trust and believe that we’ve got their backs. Let’s prove to ourselves and the wider world that this is who we are as Nurses, Nurse Practitioners and Healthcare Providers. Let us stand together for justice! 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Podcasts:

  • Courageous Presence with Racism – Tara Brach
  • The Seeing White Series – Scene On Radio
  • Unlocking Us Podcast – Brene Brown, PhD MSW interview with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
  • New York Times Audio Series: 1619 – 

Books

  • The Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda Magee
  • How to be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi 
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
  • So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Neshi Coates   


*And while you’re at it, we recommend buying your book from a Black owned bookstore https://lithub.com/you-can-order-today-from-these-black-owned-independent-bookstores/

Many thanks to our reviewers for their time and expertise


Dr. Irene W. Bean, DNP, FNP/PMHNP-BC, FAANP

Dr. Scharmaine Lawson, DNP, FNP-BC, PMHNP(C), FAAN, FAANP 

Dr. Andrea Jackson, DrPH

Andrew Ollero, MSW, MPA

References

  1. National Center for Health Statistics (US). Health, United States, 2015: With Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics (US); 2016 May. Report No.: 2016-1232.
  2. The Department of Health and Human Services, United States (HHS). National partnership for action to end health disparities: Offices of Minority Health. Washington, DC, 2011.
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