Nurses stung by racism on the job, York U research finds
Nurses in Ontario experience racism on the job from patients, doctors, nurse managers, and most often from other nurses, research by a York University professor has found.
“I would call it a new racism, a subtle but systemic form,” says professor Tania Das Gupta, Chair of the Department of Equity Studies in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies. “It doesn’t use the language of racism, but it ranges from comments about accents and physical attributes, to a failure to recognize the nurse’s skills and knowledge.”
Das Gupta surveyed nurses through the Ontario Nurses’ Association, receiving 593 responses from nurses across the province. She conducted 18 in-depth interviews and closely studied arbitration cases.
In the survey, 41 per cent responded that they had been made to feel uncomfortable because of their race, colour or ethnicity. Most Black/African Canadian nurses (82 per cent) and Asian Canadian nurses (80 per cent) said they had experienced this, as well as 50 per cent of South Asian Canadian nurses and 57 per cent of Central/South American Canadian nurses. Even 25 per cent of the white/European Canadian nurses said they had been made to feel uncomfortable because of their ethnicity or religion, said Das Gupta.
The results of the survey, which was conducted a few years ago, are analyzed in Das Gupta’s recent book, Real Nurses & Others: Racism in Nursing (Fernwood, 2009). The title for the book came from the experience of one black nurse who was asked often if she was a “real” nurse.
Das Gupta decided to study racism in nursing closely because she had often been called as an expert witness in racial discrimination cases involving nurses. She expected that most of the racism toward nurses would come from their patients or managers, but the greatest proportion – 27.3 per cent – was from co-workers. Patients were the next most likely group to express racism (23.8 per cent), followed by doctors (14.3 per cent) and nursing managers (12.8 per cent).
Systemic racism in institutions arises from conscious or unconscious policies, procedures and practices that adversely affect people of colour, including their exclusion, marginalization and infantilization, says Das Gupta. Her research examines how fear, lack of support, management collaboration, co-worker harassment and ineffective institutional responses make it difficult for victims of racism to fight back.
Surprisingly, most nurses who experience racism don’t take the issue to their union, but try to handle it on their own, says Das Gupta. This is significant because 58.1 per cent of black/African nurses and 48.3 per cent of Asian nurses perceived that their race, ethnicity or colour affected their relationship with their colleagues, while 54.8 per cent of black/African nurses, 46.7 per cent of Asian and 44.4 per cent of South Asian nurses said it affected their relationship with their manager.“Both those relationships can affect job promotion and there’s a pattern of differential treatment,” said Das Gupta. ”I think there’s a role for government to play to address this kind of systemic racism, as well as unions, employers, educators and even community groups.”