Black nurses need us to talk about racism in health care and address it
Delanor Manson is the first Black person to lead the Kentucky Nurses Association since it was founded 117 years ago.
She has had a long and varied career in nursing that took her across the world as a now-retired Navy officer before she became CEO of the association. But what Manson has been able to accomplish is the exception, not the rule.
“I have to say that part of the reason we have a nursing shortage is that many nurses of color have said, ‘Enough. I'm not taking it anymore, and I'm out,’” she said.
Manson said nurses of color face racism and other barriers that push them to leave the profession, which adds to the nursing shortages in the Midwest and across the country.
A new national report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed nearly 1,000 nurses and found that 44% believe racism or discrimination was part of their nursing school’s culture. Most nurses also said that they have seen or experienced racism or discrimination from patients more frequently than from their colleagues. The report also found that Black nurses are more likely to have seen or experienced racism from management in the workplace.
Decades ago, Manson went into the University of Kentucky’s nursing school with encouragement from her grandmother, who was a nursing assistant. She graduated in the 1970s. But she says her experience there was horrendous.
"It was so bad that I refused to go to Lexington, Kentucky for 30 years. I would not step foot in the city," she said. "It was traumatic."
Manson was one of a few Black students at the school. She said they were not treated with much respect. She remembers an instructor told her she’d make a better nursing assistant than a nurse.
“I had to call and ask my mother, ‘What could she possibly be talking about?’ And what my mother told me is that they don’t think that Black people make good nurses because we’re not smart enough,” Manson recalled. “And she said, ‘And I’m sure you’ll prove her wrong.’”
Manson said universities and workplaces must do more to welcome and help nurses of color advance their careers.
“Many African American nurses who are very qualified in terms of degrees and experience do not get the opportunity for promotion,” she said.
Still, Manson said students of color should consider nursing as a potential career. It’s a strong foundation that unlocks paths to a wide array of jobs, she said.
Valenchia Brown has spent over a decade working in different health care sectors, including women’s health and long-term care.
She’s a clinical research nurse practitioner at the Norton Infectious Diseases Institute in Louisville, and she is on track to earn a doctorate of nursing practice.
Brown grew up in Namibia before she immigrated to the U.S. and said mentors, including other professionals of color, helped her advance her career.
“I leaned on people to help me and to advise me on what to do when I find myself in a sticky situation or faced by racism,” she said. “And that’s what I have done as a Black woman to succeed.”
According to the RWJF national survey, only 23% of the nurses who saw or experienced an incident of racism, discrimination or harassment reported it. And of those who reported such incidents, 50% said that their relationships with supervisors, senior leaders and fellow nurses were negatively impacted.
Most of the nurses surveyed said that there needs to be “zero-tolerance workplace discrimination policies, clear consequences, and reporting anonymity” when a nurse sees or experiences racism, discrimination or harassment.
Brown said there is also a need for more representation of nurses of color.
“Going through nursing school, I never heard or learned about one Black nurse in history that contributed to anything,” she said.
However, plenty of Black nurses have played critical roles throughout history. Brown mentioned Mary Seacole, a Black British-Jamaican pioneer in nursing.
Seacole treated wounded men during the Crimean War in the 1800s, which was fought between Russia and several countries, including the United Kingdom. That same war brought fame to Florence Nightingale, a white woman celebrated as the founder of modern nursing.
But Seacole’s story was not often told until recently. Brown said stories of Black nurses like Seacole can inspire future generations.
At a recent event in Louisville, nurses from the health care company, Humana, spoke to a group of middle school students about their nursing careers and the history of the profession. The children go to an all-girls school that mostly serves Black students.
The event was part of a summit of Humana’s Nursing Advisory Council.
Nurses Kathleen Corcoran and Sara Harrington showed 12-year-old Madison Victor how to take someone’s blood pressure.
“So pump it up to about the 180,” Harrington told Madison as they watched the gauge on the blood pressure cuff.
“It was actually really fun because you can learn how to help other people and even help yourself in the simplest ways,” Madison said.
Events like this are needed, but they are certainly not a silver bullet.
Manson, Brown and other nurses said intentional efforts to foster a racism-free workplace and provide opportunities for growth are crucial to attract and keep diverse talent in nursing.
This story comes from a partnership between Louisville Public Media and Side Effects Public Media, a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI. Side Effects is a collaboration of NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas, including KBIA, Iowa Public Radio, Louisville Public Media, KCUR and Ideastream Public Media.