When I left Tennessee to start my career as a new nurse practitioner I thought I was leaving behind racism and sexism. Silly me. While it is less prevalent in some parts of the country it is ever present and I was unprepared.
I arrived at St. Elizabeths hospital the day after graduation to begin work. I had spent two summers working there while I was finishing my Master’s degree so I knew it was in Anacostia, a predominately black neighboorhood and in an area with a significant drug issue. It was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. There was little I did not love about being at St. Elizabeths. The neighboorhood was made up of the large, old houses that were suffering some deterioration but still beautiful. Across the street was a Chinese restaurant and down the block was a Popeye’s, which became an addiction I only recently broke. The campus was 396 acres and 101 buildings many of which were still beautiful and others that were more deteriorated than some of the houses. There were trees from countries around the world and beautiful flower gardens. The room of Esra Pound was even still maintained.
I was assigned to a unit that cared for those that were homeless and had a mental illness. I learned more working at St. Elizabeths than any other period in my life. Part of what I learned was my ignorance of people that didn’t look like me, didn’t sound like me, or for that matter were not from Tennessee. I left a community that was predominately white and middle class and moved into an apartment complex that had a great deal of diversity and took a job where I was in the minority.
It is now common to hear about cultural sensitivity or cultural competency, but it wasn’t in 1991. Because I was too young and ignorant to be embarrassed about what I didn’t know I was comfortable with what I now know as white privilege. The day I arrived the unit coordinator announced he was going on vacation and I was in charge. I had completed an entry level MSN. It was the first week of my first job and I was in charge. About a week after I started work one of the Psychiatric Nursing Assistants ask me something that made her realize I was actually a new nurse and from that day forward everything changed. A more senior nurse stepped in and did what I should have done and spoke to the Chief Nurse. She should have been in charge all along. Looking back I had an MSN, new LTJG bars, and I was white. Rather than holding it against me, I was treated like a new nurse and I absorbed all everyone had to teach me from my supervisory medical officer to the psychiatric nursing assistant.
At some point, my mother asked me one too many times about the color of the person’s skin I was telling her about. I could feel the slow burn as I lost my cool and told her that unless I tell her otherwise she should assume that everyone I knew was black, all my coworkers and all my friends. Of course, at that time it was fairly accurate but why was it always an issue? Why was it always a detail she wanted? Until the day she died, she never asked again. When I left St. Elizabeths to work in a Federal prison one of the interview questions was how my family would feel about me working in a prison. I said not as bad as they did about me working in DC. It was sadly true. My mother never appreciated me telling her that I was truly part of the team when I walked down the street in DC and someone yelled my name from an ally which may not be the best thing to tell a mother.
I have been fortunate to spend the majority of my adult life living and working in very diverse environments. When I retired from the U.S. Public Health Service and moved to Iowa I was surprised that the majority of the faculty and students were white. In my professional life that was a first for me. One person in the city told me they used to be a Catholic town, but now they are only 80% Catholic. I think it was the first time that I truly realized how different life is when there is limited diversity. I wish I had the words to describe it, but it is a feeling that is hard to explain.
I was only in Iowa for three years before moving first to San Antonio and then to St. Louis. It was in St. Louis that the difference between diversity and inclusion was glaring. The university had demographics similar to the community at the undergraduate level, but yet there were significant issues. While we had 20-30% underrepresented minorities at the undergraduate level we did not at the graduate level and it was not because there was a lack of qualified students? The college had recognized the problem and instituted holistic admission and still no change. It wasn’t until we blinded the admissions that we went from 7% to 29% in one year. Fortunately, we had a dean that was supportive of the effort and stood with me when some faculty said we were implying they were racist. We had a positive outcome, but it was evidence that implicit bias existed in the admission process. Where was it unrecognized? My guess is that there hiring and promotion suffered the same bias.
Diversity doesn’t mean inclusion as was the case in St. Louis. I look back and wonder when it was that I found my voice and my courage to stand up. It wasn’t at St. Elizabeths where I dare say I didn’t recognize my white privilege. It certainly wasn’t when I was told I couldn’t hire any more Hispanics for the Cuban Mafia. I think it was when I was told that I couldn’t promote a black officer and if I did “when she fails and they all do I will hold you personally responsible.” That was the day I ordered my boss out of my office and said I will take that responsibility and hired the officer. I was grateful when I was transferred a few weeks later because I knew that there would be hell to pay.
I still would not say I’m culturally competent and I certainly can’t understand what it must be like to be the officer that was expected to fail. But I do realize that it isn’t enough to count numbers, 7 – 29% and call that success. It isn’t enough to hire the person and not report the blatant discrimination. It isn’t enough to increase the diversity of students and do nothing to address the bias in teaching evaluations or to even use them knowing the bias exists and it will harm professors of color and women. It isn’t enough and so we should make it part of the curriculum to include content on diversity and inclusivity. Students should not have to learn how to address racism on the job or that diversity doesn’t mean inclusivity. We can’t continue to send students out unprepared to address real-world issues.