Told they didn’t ‘fit the look,’ called the n-word: Now, the Black Nurses Task Force at RNAO helps deconstruct racism in nursing
|Toronto Star 16 Oct 2020 at 14:39|
One morning, Corsita Garraway, a nurse practitioner, was asked to meet with her program director. It was there she was told that her clothing, a skirt and heels, was inappropriate, even though she wanted to dress that way to look professional.
“The director told me there was nothing unprofessional about it, but it just didn t fit with the other people in the unit,” said Garraway, adding that there was no formal rule to wear scrubs in her unit, nor was there a dress code in place.
She said her director responded by saying that Garraway simply didn’t “fit the look” in comparison to the rest of the nurses she worked alongside, who were mostly white.
As the only Black nurse working in the unit, she felt this was an incident of covert racism.
“It s the buildup of those microaggressions that sometimes manifest to worse things than if they were overt,” Garraway said.
Several years ago, Dionne Sinclair arrived at one of her first jobs as a registered nurse in a long term care home and was assigned to help a resident bathe.
When she approached the resident, she recalls him saying “I don’t want an n-word taking care of me.”
Sinclair who now works as a Director of Diversity and Cultural Advancement at Southlake Hospital, says she adopted her “kill them with kindness” attitude that day. A philosophy she leaned on to help her persevere against the racism she’s faced in her career.
This June, the Registered Nurses of Ontario (RNAO) acknowledged a history of systemic racism in nursing. To tackle this, they formed the Black Nurses Task Force — a group working toward a more equitable workplace and acting as a support system for Black nurses experiencing racism.
Angela Cooper Brathwaite, the former president of RNAO who is now a co-chair of the Black Nurses Task Force along with Garraway has been working in nursing for over 40 years.
She says that there is a pressure put on Black nurses working in these “whitewashed” spaces and as a result, may have an affect on the type of care they provide.
“One of the greatest things I hope we could accomplish through this task force is helping nurses who have been traumatized by racism because not only their self-esteem but their mental health is affected,” said Brathwaite. “It undermines their ability to think critically, because they believe a lie that they aren’t able to accomplish certain things or that they aren’t intelligent enough to succeed.”
The group is made up of 17 Black nursing professionals whose mandate is to “actively tackle anti-Black racism and discrimination within the nursing profession — its organizations, regulatory body, associations, academic institutions, employment and the broader health system targeted towards and experienced by Black nurses.”
“(One nurse I spoke to said) she’s in pain because even though she works as hard as she does, no one gives her the credibility or the opportunities that the people who are white get,” said Garraway. As a nurse practitioner, Garraway also says that even though she has achieved the highest level of nursing, potential employers still have a hard time believing what’s on her resume.
Birgit Umaigba, another nurse who has accessed the Black Nurses Task Force who works in critical care through an agency noticed a higher number of Black nurses working bedside and not in upper management positions.
“They’re often overworked and because they’re from an agency, if anyone at the hospital makes a complaint about them, their job may be easily taken away,” said Umaigba. Nurses who work for agencies are called upon to fill in when hospitals and health care facilities have staffing shortages or temporary nurse leaves.
Similar to many other professions, nursing historically originated as an acceptable place of work for only white women.
It was an occupation that , that included purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity — definitions which at the time often excluded Black people aspiring to be nurses as they weren’t allowed to work in the profession until the mid-1940s.
Garraway says that the same white-defined industry has perpetuated itself into modern day nursing.
“It stems from a system that has been designed to foster a good life, I think for whom I call the colonizers. The people who are in power and who make the rules have made them so that their lives can be comfortable and their offspring can be comfortable. That comes at a detriment to people who don t look the same or sound the same,” said Garraway.
“There’s a negativity attached to the appearance of us and so there are additional pressures that Black nurses experience, whether it’s the way your hair looks or how you sound,” Garraway added.
Doris Grinspun, current CEO of the RNAO, says her idea for the task force came from a desire to see change in the overbearing “whiteness” of the profession.
“You look at all the CEOs of hospitals, whether they are a nurse or a doctor, you can look at all the senior positions in nursing. Regardless, the great majority is white people. So that cannot be explained by nothing else, but systemic racism,” said Grinspun.
Although the Black Nurses Task Force is still in its initial stages, Brathwaite adds that their first line of action is to create a monitoring system for executive leaders within Ontario’s health care system.
“We want them to identify that this is a problem and work out what structures they could build into their system with policies, hiring practices, or even how diverse their clientele is in comparison to the people providing care,” said Brathwaite
The Black Nurses Task Force holds monthly webinars open to the public through online registration, anyone in the nursing profession is invited to hear guest speakers and share their own experiences. Their next session is scheduled for Oct. 26.