I was born in India but came to the United States of America when I was 16 years old to be with the rest of my family. Having been an American citizen for 20 years, I have called this country home for most of my life. However, I still feel like an outsider and the workplace is no exception.

What It Feels Like to Be a Nurse of Color

Patients and coworkers have asked me questions like these since the start of my career, even in this era of masks and face shields. By now I may be used to the questions, but I still don’t know how I feel about them.

Am I supposed to be offended? Are these appropriate questions stemming from an innocent curiosity? Does my response influence your perspective of me?

I found my passion for oncology nursing like most of my colleagues, after caring for a family member with cancer. Every day through this job, I witness how patients with cancer feel comfortable enough to speak their minds because of the relationships that oncology nurses build with them. This opens the door to many beautiful connections, but sometimes they say things to us, nurses of color, that can be offensive and hurtful.

A Peek Into Prejudice

I still remember one day very clearly. I was the primary nurse taking care of a patient who was receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments. As soon as I entered his room to administer his treatment, he looked at me and said something that stopped me in my tracks.

“Did you bow down to your husband before you came to work?”

He continued. “Aren’t you Indian women supposed to be slaves to your men?”

I could not find anything to say except, “Let me get your treatment started.”

After initiating his treatment, I went to my desk and cried. Eventually, my manager heard about the incident and had a discussion with the patient. The patient was given a behavioral contract stating that he had to be respectful to all nurses and that any further violations would result in termination of services from our institution.

Needless to say, I never took care of that patient again.

Megha Shah, BSN, RN, OCN®
Megha Shah, BSN, RN, OCN®

What This Means for Nurses

Unfortunately, stories like mine are more common than you might expect. Nurses face more workplace violence and abuse than any other profession in the United States. However, we are less likely to report incidents of verbal abuse or other forms of violence from both patients and coworkers. This perpetuates a culture of fear and is perhaps part of the reason nurses have such high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Verbal abuse, harassment, discrimination, racism, and prejudice affect both nurses of color and our coworkers. The behaviors make an already emotionally taxing job even more overwhelming and remind us how far we have to go in achieving a post-racial society. Creating a culture where nurses support each other and report any encounters of workplace violence is critical.

What You Can Do

Nurses are taught throughout our careers to treat every patient equally, regardless of age, race, cast, disease, color, or gender. However, when the tables turn, we tolerate insensitive behavior from patients far too often. And sadly, nurses of color may face discrimination from coworkers and other disciplines as well.

In today’s world of social unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement, we need supportive organizational leadership and managers like the one I have. Similar to the mandatory sexual harassment training that most of us attend each year, training on how to be racially sensitive should also be an annual competency for nurses and other healthcare workers.

We can display signs throughout our organizations indicating that we will not tolerate disruptive or discriminatory actions from patients. Behavioral contracts such as the one we gave to my patient should be a part of standard training. Plus, we all are taught to promote a culture of safety. Protecting nurses of color from racial discrimination should be the cultural norm.

Most of us work with nurses from a variety of backgrounds, and we must recognize that we are more alike than different. We all want to help patients. We all have a complex set of genetics and experiences that make us who we are. We all are human.

I would love to hear about what resources nurses across the United States are using to battle racial discrimination in their institutions. Please share your experience with me at TheOncologyNurse@gmail.com.