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An open letter to CNA on the reality of racism in nursing

By CN Content posted 08-31-2020 00:00
Aug 31, 2020, By: Nadia Prendergast , Geraldine Abumbi , Lystra Beausoleil
A Black nurse writing while sitting at a table.
We are proud to be Canadian nurses, but we must draw your attention to the reality that in nursing there is systemic racism, which we have experienced personally and as a community.

This open letter is among the first on Canadian Nurse to focus on the issue of racism— particularly anti-Black racism — in nursing and health care. Our aim is to give a voice to those who have experienced racism or want to speak out against it.

June 23, 2020 — These have been a heavy and harrowing few weeks since the death of George Floyd and the global outcry against systemic racism. As Black nurses we have felt the grief on several levels, most notably the high death toll of Black people due to COVID-19 and the growing number of immigrants and racialized people at risk because so many work in essential services. The list goes on.

We are proud to be Canadian nurses, but we must draw your attention to the reality that in nursing there is systemic racism, which we have experienced personally and as a community. For this reason, we are asking you to address systemic racism as an urgent issue. We will share with you just a small number of our experiences that make it critical for this topic to be flagged a priority.

  • Systemic racism is omitted within nursing education. All the mandatory reading materials either browses the topic or leaves it out entirely. As nurse educators we experience this daily within the various school of nursing settings. The social determinants of health address race as a determinant, but the nursing curriculum fails to replicate this. While nursing schools are educating students to work with racialized patients and staff, schools are providing little to no knowledge or understanding about systemic racism.
  • The notion of cultural sensitivity and competence has given a false sense of understanding and belonging. As Black nurses, we have experienced practices aiming to exclude our voices and presence from many decisions that contribute to the increasing poor health of Black and brown people. COVID-19 drew the world’s attention to this in the rising death tolls of under-served communities who happen to be Black and racialized. However, nurses still have little comprehension of cultural humility, which is the ability to be open and humble with regard to others’ culture. Such humility allows Black nurses to tell our stories and work in partnership with white nurses. Sadly, the nursing profession merely pays lip service to “working with racialized groups” as it continues to practise “working for racialized groups.”
  • As Black and racialized nurses, we are dedicated to make nursing compassionate and transformational. We are sad that for years we have felt on the fringes rather than part of the core. The poor representation of Black nurses in leadership and policy-making decisions continues to omit them from being involved in improving public health and hospitalized care among racialized communities.

We are confident that as nursing redefines itself within the context of the “new normal” and Black Lives Matter, your agenda will prominently include our following proposals:

  • Make systemic racism and anti-Black racism a mandatory subject within the student nurse curriculum and in nursing exams
  • Create a committee of Black, brown, and Indigenous nurses that will address these themes in the nursing curriculum and programs; involve the committee in the education of student nurses and nurses about systemic racism and anti-Black racism
  • Use the concept of cultural humility to revise cultural competency
  • Create a nursing competency that focuses on systemic racism and anti-Black racism
  • Generate a roadshow of programs on anti-Black racism and systemic racism to be presented within health regions and at hospitals and conferences
  • Establish a space where Black, brown, and Indigenous nurses may tell their stories and experiences as a place of healing and restoration, while creating empathy and awareness

We have gathered a list of supporters through an online petition. Our stories have never been heard and if given the lectern we are sure you all would cry as we cried when we heard the words, “I can’t breathe.” We want you to address these issues urgently and give us as Black and racialized nurses an equal chance to breathe as our counterparts do.

Editor’s note:
In addition to CNA, this letter was sent to the College of Nurses of Ontario, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the Ontario Nurses’ Association and the Canadian Nursing Students’ Association.

CNA has been collaborating with the authors of this letter and other thought leaders on appropriate and meaningful actions to address racism in nursing and health care. CNA is in the process of convening a national panel to examine the issue; will soon publish Key Messages on Anti-Black Racism in Nursing and Health; and is recruiting a public member for our board of directors who will bring a Black community perspective to the table. CNA is committed to using the Canadian Nurse website as a vehicle to hear the stories of Black and racialized nurses and communities.

Nadia Prendergast, RN, PhD, is a practising nurse and educator. She has worked at Mount Sinai Hospital for 19 years and is a university course instructor.
Geraldine Abumbi, RN, BScN, GDMid/CFH, MN, is the executive director of Before Birth and Beyond and is a public health nurse in the Greater Toronto Area.
Lystra Beausoleil, RN, BScN, is a public health nurse who provides prenatal education to families in the Greater Toronto Area.