‘It finally feels as though an open conversation about race has started’

Paediatric nurse Nicola shares her experiences of racism within health care as well as the hope for the future recent events have given her

Racism isn’t just one thing. It isn’t always about spewing racial and derogatory words. It can be subtle yet painstakingly obvious stereotyping, misconceptions, prejudgment and microagressions. It is living and breathing in systems that are designed for and expect you to fail.
As a nurse in the NHS, I’ve experienced all of this regularly and don’t doubt it’s similar for my black nursing colleagues. Worrying that people might not want you looking after their children because of the colour of your skin and hesitating to speak out against injustice because you don’t want to be labelled as having “an attitude”. Being confused with your other black colleagues because “you look the same” and constantly asked “where are you really from?” or seeing no one who looks like you in senior positions and wondering whether your professional goals will be attainable. These are just a few examples of how our lives are affected.

And while I have generally felt supported by managers and trusts when I’ve experienced overt racism or abuse, I’ve always felt obliged to just put up with and “shrug off” these everyday slights and discriminations. 

It’s always felt like a bit of a losing battle and so you tell yourself “it is what it is” and just learn to get on with it and accept being treated differently to your white colleagues. There’s always been so much resistance to the idea that racism even exists that I never would have felt comfortable to address any of these things.
But with recent events, for the first time in my career I feel like racism is really being spoken about openly and that people of all races are getting involved in the discussion. I’ve never seen anything like this before and it really gives me hope. But we need to make sure it continues. 

Nicola Wiafe


Get involved in the conversation

The RCN is hosting a series of online events that seek to start the conversation about the nature of race, racism, structural discrimination and inequality in the nursing profession.

Find out more and sign up here.

Duty of care

Within health care especially, I feel strongly about how important this is. We are such a diverse workforce – one of the things I love about the NHS – and as health care professionals we serve such a diverse community, so there’s no room for us to be complacent about these things.
People don’t realise that the biases and stereotypes, even subconscious, that they have outside of work will follow them in and could be affecting the care they’re able to deliver.

It’s uncomfortable for people to recognise this and to have to unlearn behaviours – of course, nobody wants to see themselves in a negative light – but it’s so important to take an objective look at your views and what you can do to dismantle them.
When it comes to health care, it’s not just about the barriers and discrimination we as staff face, but often a question of life and death for our patients.

We need to keep having open and honest conversations about race 

Education is key

We need to keep having open and honest conversations about race. In fact, they need to start right from when we’re at university.

The statistics regarding disparities between health outcomes for white, black and other ethnicities speak for themselves. The fact that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth is just one example. The lack of nursing staff adequately trained to care for patients with sickle cell disease another.
Sickle cell disease is one of the most prevalent hereditary diseases and is particularly common in people of African and Caribbean heritage, but I don’t remember having a single proper lecture on this when I was at university.

The curriculum needs to change to address both the racism and discrimination within our workforce as well as to properly educate our young health care professionals to adequately care for all people of all races.

Together, we can get there

It would be great to see the current momentum continue and see people from all ethnicities speaking out in support of black people and against racism.

It’s important that health care employers create a space for open discussion, where everyone can feel comfortable and supported to talk about race free of criticism or judgements. We all need to work together for anything to work.

It would be nice to have an NHS that really reflects the values it says it’s built on

I hope that the next generation of nursing staff is able to see people in a range of different positions who look like them – and who don’t look like them – and that everyone can feel like their goals are attainable.

We need patients of all backgrounds to feel safe in the knowledge that all health care professionals have been adequately trained to care for them and that they will be treated equally and with compassion and understanding.
It would be nice to have an NHS that really reflects the values it says it’s built on. One where people aren’t discriminated against and don’t get left behind.

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