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Break the Glass Ceiling: Reflections on Racism in Healthcare Education

The recent resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has given us the opportunity to reflect on our perspectives on racism and the roles we play when it comes to either perpetuating or combatting racism.

The lessons and information we’re taught in higher education has been a focal point of the reflections of many current and former students. Numerous student-led campaigns like @uwominoritystory, @blackatmcgill, @untolduottawa and @discriminationatdal on Instagram have highlighted how scarily prevalent student experiences with racism are on university campuses. These campaigns have all shown how pervasive racism is across all aspects of campus life, from student mentorship programs, to residence culture, and even in the classroom setting.

Reflecting on my own experiences at university, I understand how racism is so prevalent in our university communities. As a woman of colour, I have experienced racist remarks from fellow students throughout my undergraduate career. This, in itself, is disheartening, but what disappoints me the most is experiencing how Eurocentric and whitewashed so many higher education programs are. My personal experience comes from being a student in a health care-related field, an experience that makes it no surprise why we continue to see health inequities and disparities in our society as students move beyond the classroom.

In recent years, health care programs across the country have made gradual efforts to integrate an intersectionality lens into programming. However, from a student perspective, these changes were long overdue, and there is still a long way to go.

In my time as a nursing student, I have only had one Black instructor and one Indigenous instructor – many of my friends in other health care-related programs, other years of my program, or other nursing schools have had none. There is still very little space given to academics of colour in nursing, stemming from historical barriers to entering academia that are still maintained to this day.

If you asked me how to identify “paleness” or “turning blue” in a patient with darker skin, I would have no idea because this was not taught to me. If you ask me to identify a skin condition that appears physically different in a person with darker skin, I could not tell you. All of our texts and resources use examples that are almost exclusively on light skin.  

We are taught to consider different cultural health practices, but we seldom engage in discussion or receive instruction or examples of these practices. This leaves students in the dark, with no direction to even begin learning.

Learning about Indigenous health is still considered an “add on”, an option, or just a small component of a topic that is afforded only a fraction of an instructor’s attention. This is the case, despite the fact that Indigenous peoples experience significant health disparities compared to non-Indigenous people, and the presence of Indigenous healing, which predated our existing Eurocentric nursing practices, is largely non-existent1.

In nursing specifically, people of colour make up a menial proportion of the profession as a result of historical and current socioeconomic barriers to entering nursing programs. Racial bias towards nurses of colour in the workplace by colleagues is also an issue that is heavily under-addressed by nursing programs when it comes to discussions on professional ethics2.

We see the issues. Students of colour and our allies across the country have been talking about this for years. Publications put out by professional organizations and scholars on these issues have been in an echo chamber and not taken seriously for decades. Students are angry, frustrated, and confused as to why we are only addressing these issues now and we’re left wondering if these issues will be ignored as soon as #BlackLivesMatter stops trending.

Students want action that goes beyond training staff and students on cultural safety. What we want to see is an integration of diversity into our education curriculum and the decolonization of health care education. We want to see active efforts by educational institutions to support people of colour in breaking the glass ceiling that prevents educators of colour and future candidates from entering the workforce. We want to see academic work on people of colour, written by people of colour; theorists of colour being given long overdue credit for their decades of under-recognized work in academia.

In order to put these recommendations into action, institutions need to be prepared to accept that our current way of doing things is not working and things need to change. Accept shortcomings means that institutions need to put growth and improvement ahead of protecting reputations that disservice people of colour. Institution leaders need to be ready to welcome discomfort, embarrassment, and frustration as the catalysts for changing their institutional practices and policies.

By no means will racial equity be achieved in nursing, or any other academic program, overnight. The underlying principle is that we as students can, and must, hold our institutions accountable for taking those necessary actions to make academia a place for diverse education of diverse students, not through tokenism but through honouring human rights and social justice.

 

References:

Wytenbroek, L., Vandenberg, H. (2017). Reconsidering nursing’s history during Canada 150. Canadian Nurse. Retrieved from: https://www.canadian-nurse.com/en/articles/issues/2017/july-august-2017/reconsidering-nursings-history-during-canada-150

Jefferies, K. Recognizing history of black nurses a first step to addressing racism and discrimination in nursing. Retrieved from: https://www.dal.ca/news/2020/05/13/recognizing-history-of-black-nurses-a-first-step-to-addressing-r.html

 

About the Author:
Erika Juhasz is a second-year nursing student at Western University. Erika serves as the President of the Western Fanshawe Nursing Students' Association. She is a Chatime enthusiast and has tried every item on their menu!