Nurse Shares Racism Experienced At Work In Australia And U.S.
By Mariam Yazdi, RN
Previously we interviewed Karel Wiggins, international travel nurse and adventure-seeker extraordinaire. She told us all about her year in Australia, how she got there, and what it was like working from one Australian coast to the other, experiencing its culture and beauty, while sharing her skills in service of the patient population in the Land Down Under.
Karel also shared some hard truths about her experiences in Australia – the sting of racism and the country’s own struggle with discrimination amongst their people – a different population with a very different history.
Karel spent an amazing year in Australia and moved back to the United States in May of 2018. The adjustment of transitioning back to the homeland made Karel have her own "coming to America moment." She landed on U.S. soil to the news of children being separated from their parents at the border; of racism making headline news with devastating outcomes; of the political climate being much more tumultuous than when she left 12 months before. It shocked her. By this time in Karel's career – and life – she was no stranger to the capacity of people's negative out lashes. But she did not spend most of her life warding off racist comments and behaviors. In fact, it wasn't until she became a nurse that she became exposed to these heart-breaking experiences.
WEST SWAHILIAN??????? Just when you think you have seen it and heard it all!!! I’ve been asked if I’m from a lot of places but WEST SWAHILI is a new one. I think it’s neighboring WAKANDA! Two magical places . . 0700 I walk into my patient’s room. Hi, My name is Karel and I’m going to be your nurse today. Pt: “Hi, blah blah blah (small talk)..... Are you West SWAHILIAN? Thought 💭: WTF is that? Me: Where? Pt: West Swahili? It’s in Kenya. It’s pretty much West Kenya! Me: 💭 (maybe the patient meant to ask if I spoke Swahili. I’ve been asked that before. I wish I did, but no such luck) Question I asked instead, “What makes you think I’m from a country in Africa?” Pt: Because you are black, not like Australian Aboriginal black. And your HAIR (yes HAIR)!!!!!! Me: Is the continent of Africa the only place where there are black, non Australian Aboriginal blacks living? Pt: no but your hair..... (I shot him a look of 😏🙄, so he doesn’t finish!) . 🤔, so guys where is West Swahili? Where are my West SWAHILIAN brothers and sisters with the same hair! #blackgirlwithswahilihair . . . Curious how the convo ended? I told the patient I am Jamaican. The patient asked if I moved directly from Jamaica to here (Australia) and I said no, I moved from America. Pt says to me, “went to America once and I had a black bus driver. Really nice guy!” My response: “ Oh nice 👍🏾.” Patient then proceeds to tell me how selfish Americans are because they only know about what’s going on in their country! 🤔OK! . . Why can’t people start with the question, “where are you from?” It’s a much more inviting question and conversation starter. . . . Oh well, cheers 🍻 to my last day of work in Victoria. It has been lovely. I’ve worked alongside some great healthcare professionals and I’ve learnt a lot. But the north is calling me back. But before that, holiday time 😊 with the fam! . . . . #blackgirlmagic #wakandaforever #diversity #travelnurseadventures #travelnurse #melanin #melaninpoppin #nurselife
“I feel like I’ve lived a very sheltered life growing up. It wasn’t until the last few years that my bubble was popped. Once when I was at work, a patient said to me: ‘I don’t want anyone of color in my room.’ It took me aback. As healthcare professionals, we are educated in being culturally sensitive, of caring for all populations equally regardless of gender or race or background – and yet we have to deal with this behavior. Yes, we are professionals, but we are also still humans.”
In the book, Small Great Things, author Jodi Picoult tells the story of a labor and delivery nurse named Ruth Jefferson, who was sued by a white supremacy couple. They stated they did not want her touching their baby because she was African American. Later on, the baby went into distress and Ruth was the only nurse on the ward. She was faced with a decision: notify the team but leave the baby in distress? Or act now in attempts to save the baby’s life? Ruth chose to act. She began CPR on the baby while the team arrived, but alas the baby passed away. Ruth was then blamed for and charged for the baby’s death.
As a nurse, this story resonates heavily with Karel. It has made her ponder how she would handle a similar situation in a way that best exemplifies who she is as a person and a professional.
Intervene or disregard?
"I don't want any COLORED people in my room." ⚠️⛔️🚫🏃🏾♀️🏃🏾♀️🏃🏾♀️🏃🏾♀️ walking right pass that door! . . This is how you look at the call light system when a patient says, "I don't want any colored people in my room," but then keeps calling. You see, I only have one patient right now and could help, but.... 🤔 always honor the patient's request. Need those good HCAHPS scores. What happens if there is a scenario like from #smallgreatthings ?? Hope not to find out. 2more hours to go. . . . #blacknursesrock #nurselife #travelnurselife #travelnurse #travelnurseadventures #medicine #nursing #racism #endracism #arewein2017 #healthcare #hospital #scrubs #nursestethoscope #nurse #RN #registerednurse #blacknurseproblem #notreallyaproblem @jodipicoult
“Ruth’s story makes me think: if I’m given instructions to not interact at all with a patient because of my ethnicity, but there is an emergency, what do I do? Do I follow the direction given to me by my superior? Or do I follow what I believe is morally correct and intervene? I am trying to find my place in that situation; I want to take a stand and use my voice to call out the injustice, but I also don’t want to lose my job or risk my safety or the safety of my peers. It is heartbreaking because, as health care providers it is our responsibility to educate our patients and their families – so is this part of the education as well? Do we educate our patients by saying, ‘there are a lot of different nurses here, and we all want the best for you no matter what our background is’?”
“I didn’t anticipate this when I entered healthcare. It’s one thing when you hear about discrimination at a restaurant, but I truly believe that when someone is sick enough to be admitted to a hospital, prejudices should fall off to the wayside. It puts the staff in a difficult situation: we are here to do our job but if there are ethical restrictions, how can we work? Do we do what’s right? Do we do what we’re told? Depending on what the outcome is, what will we be held responsible for?”
Surprising bias in Australia
Karel’s experience of racism in Australia was different than that of the States. On her way there, she became excited to work with the Aboriginal population, eager to connect with them as a person of color.
“I had heard of the struggles between the Aborigines and white Australians, and so when I arrived, I expected there to be an instant connection between me and the people of this population. I’m clearly not a white Australian, and I thought to myself, ‘they won’t have any issues with me, we are going to get along so well!’ But I was completely wrong.”
“When I worked in the city of Townsville, there were many days where almost all of my patients were Aboriginal. And instead of them opening up to me, I was met with the same resistance as if I was another white Australian nurse. They would treat me this way because their general feeling was that despite being a person of color, I was an American who sauntered over to Australia and was automatically granted more rights and respect than the indigenous population that has fought and struggled to be treated equally for generations.”
“Eventually I realized that my struggles of being a colored person in America are not the same struggles as being an Aborigine in Australia. I have not walked a step in their shoes and I do not understand what they have gone through. It was so humbling because I so badly wanted to connect with them and say, ‘I understand you! I understand what you’re going through!’”
Just as Karel was treated differently by the Aboriginal population because she was American, the same was true when other non-Aboriginal people found out she was from the States. She described how Australia is going through their own refugee crisis, with many people entering the country from Sudan. Negative media coverage has portrayed these refugees to be violent and dangerous, and Karel found herself correcting assumptions about her own background in the wake of this political climate.
“Many times, patients would automatically assume I was a Sudanese refugee, and they would start off by asking me how I got this job, or they would assume I was the help. The moment I would say I’m from the States, their demeanor towards me would instantly change.”
“This sort of thing happened even amongst the nurses. There were many times where I would show up to a unit for the first time and the air would get tense when I approached my coworkers. But the moment I opened my mouth to speak and people heard that I had an “American accent,” the tension would instantly ease. It was like people would think, “oh she’s American or Canadian. We like her.”
“In Australia, America is idolized as a great country, and there’s a level of respect that is attached to being from here. But conversely, there is the attitude that certain countries are less-than and therefore the people are less-than. The worst incident I had was when I was at the train station, minding my own business waiting for another nurse. Two guys bumped into me and told me to get the (expletive) out of the way. I told them, ‘you’re so rude and ignorant, you’re just a mean pig!’ And one of them held up his hand as if to hit me and said, ‘there’s way too many of you in our country.’”
“Now this sort of behavior wasn’t common, and I even thought for a second that they probably would not have treated me that way if they had known I was American. But then I thought, how can I still think of you as a good person when you’re treating refugees or Aborigines, or any other human being this way?”
Division in the US
When Karel arrived back home after her year abroad, she was disturbed by what she was seeing on the news. It seemed like America was even more divided than when she left, and it felt like she was living a piece of Australia’s past; decades ago, Aboriginal children were taken from their families by the Australian government in order to be “westernized.” Now she was seeing news of children at the border being taken from their families. It made her want to turn right around and get back on the plane.
“It’s a really sad time for us and our history. The United States is seen as a progressive country and a world leader. We are a melting pot of cultures, and yet we are seeing so much intolerance and riots on issues that shouldn’t exist anymore.”
“At the end of the day as a person of color, I am no different than an Aboriginal or a Mexican or a Middle Eastern. So if you think that some people are less-than and others are better, how do I know how you really feel about me? We’re all human. There’s only one mankind and that’s humankind.”