Full disclosure: I am a white American and this is from my perspective, written to help other white individuals looking to understand another race. I cannot claim to fully understand the black experience. Over the years, it’s been important to me to understand to the best of my ability. I’ve read, listened, and watched a lot about the history (but certainly do not know it all), taken care of many black patients, worked with many black providers and nurses, and some of my closest friends are black. I have had many candid conversations with them about their experiences over the years. My husband and I have donated both time and finances to organizations that specifically support our local black community, and have learned so much during that journey. I’ve learned some things along the way that I’d like to share from my imperfect, awkward, humbling, shocking, ongoing experience for which I am deeply grateful. In no way am I an expert (which is why I have a list of links to people who are experts) but hope my experiences and what I’ve been learning can be helpful to others.
From what I’m observing online, there are a lot of people who may previously have been unaware of racism that are beginning to understand and acknowledge it in a genuine way. I’ve seen posts from white people saying things like, “I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. I’m committed to understanding and learning more.”
So, how do those of us in the healthcare community who aren’t also members of the black community do so?
I’ve written this post specifically for those in the healthcare community who are not black, but really want to learn about the black experience in America to better understand and connect with that specific community – to ultimately serve and support them better.
Tips on being an ally
I want to pump the brakes first on a few things to consider before going on a journey to understand the experience of another.
- Please do not ask your black friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or patients to teach you about racism. I encourage you to learn some history first, then ask them about their experiences. Part of being a good ally is to take on the personal responsibility to learn for yourself, not expecting someone to curate that information for you. That’d be like asking your heart failure patient while they’re experiencing an acute exacerbation to teach you about heart failure before taking care of them… and then asking them about their symptoms. The black community is feeling the trauma and impact of watching someone who looks like them get murdered slowly. They are processing and healing from that horrific event themselves and that should be their focus.
- Know your motivation. The goal should be to learn more to deepen your understanding, so you can better connect and empathize, rather than to immediately problem-solve or prove all of your knowledge to people around you. If you read one book or research study and think you’ve got the black experience all figured out and start speaking about all the things that need to happen in America… that’s like looking at one lab value on a patient and making a full care and treatment plan. This is a deeply complex issue in America that should not be oversimplified. That also minimizes someone’s experience, is insensitive, and, well, just isn’t cool.
- Please don’t report to all your black friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or patients all the things you’re doing to learn about racism. It’s like you’re asking them for validation of your efforts. Again, that’s like telling your patient all the books you read about diabetes before giving them a shot of insulin. Just like it’s not our kid’s job to make us feel like a good parent, or our patient’s job to make us feel like a good healthcare provider – it’s not our black friend’s job to make us not feel like a good ally. We just need to be one. There is a difference between texting your friend the cover of every book you read on racism vs. actually reading the book, considering its content, and having a legit “Whoa, I can’t believe I didn’t know any of this,” kinds of conversations. One is simply for you to get validation for your efforts, the other is to actually learn for learning’s sake and empathize with someone you care about in an authentic way.
Basically, this is a time to turn inward, examine yourself and preconceived notions and lean in with curiosity. Why are those assumptions, thoughts, and even fears there? How did they get there? It’s kind of like starting out your nursing assessment. Taking some time to figure what’s there first in a non-judgmental way, then leaning into look to learn, grow and change.
An inadequate comparison
I am a white American, so I know I’ll never be able to fully understand these experiences to the extent that the people walking through them do. But in an attempt to do so, a comparison I like to make, although it is not the same but a start, is to parenting.
Before I became a parent, I had all these thoughts, ideas, and assumptions about what it was like to be pregnant, give birth, and raise a child. I heard other parents complain about things… observed how they acted and responded to certain situations and decided how I was going to do things… and that I would do things very differently. I felt like my husband and I had a strong marriage, so becoming parents was a natural progression in our marriage and it wouldn’t change it much. I was judgmental. I was uneducated about it. I was not empathetic to parents because I thought I knew how to do it better.
And then I had my first child.
It rocked my world.
It was exponentially harder being a parent than I ever dreamed it would be. I now empathize with other parents on a completely new level. I reserve judgement now when I observe others parenting or doing something I used to think was not the best thing, because for all I know, that parent is doing the best they possibly can at that moment. Becoming a mom has tested me mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and my marriage in ways I never could have predicted.
It was something I thought I knew from the outside looking in, but after going through the experience it has shifted my perspective and profoundly deepened my empathy. So, as you begin to comb through these resources, I ask you to try to listen with an open and non-judgemental heart. While I did eventually become a parent and was able to see and feel what it’s like, I never will actually become a member of the black community. The closest I can get is to be able to try to reserve judgement, take their perspective, understand the best to my ability what they might feel like (and you can’t really do that until you learn about the history of the black community in our country first), and personally connect with people to communicate that understanding.
That’s empathy. That’s where hearts change. That’s where true and genuine behavioral changes occur. That’s where connection and safety flourish.
A list of resources
This post is a collection of resources for those who desire to learn more about the black experience and history in America and begin that journey to anti-racism.This collection of resources has history as well as members of the black community explaining their personal experiences with racism and its impact upon their life.
This list is not all-inclusive and does not paint the entire picture by any means. Again, I cannot claim to fully get it myself. I also have not personally checked out every single one of these myself but am going off of recommendations from trusted sources of those who surround me for some of them. If you know of a helpful resource that I have not mentioned, please add it in the comments for others to check out.
Now, let’s get to the list…
- The 13th on Netflix – Academy Award Nominee (this is where I recommend you starting!)
- The House I Live In – you can rent this on Amazon Prime
- Death of a Black Panther – you can rent this on Amazon Prime
- When They See Us on Netflix
- Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer E. Eberhardt
- Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race by Robin DiAngelo
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas by Ibram X. Kendi
- Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Stoop
- National Black Nurses Association’s Health Disparities Podcast
- Code Switch
- Talking Race With Young Children
- Kamau Right Now!
- Brene Brown with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be Antiracist
- Witness History: Witness Black History
- Ivirlei’s Brookes’s Instagram video on ways to support the black community that starts at home (short, simple, powerful)
- Becoming the Bridge – A Conversation With Pastor Steven Furdick and Pastor John Gray – start at about 17:23 to get to the meat of the conversation, this definitely is from a Christian perspective but even if you do not identify with that faith there are some powerful take home messages that transcend spiritual identity
- George Floyd and the Dominos of Racial Injustice – with Trevor Noah
- Brene Brown on Empathy – this is a general explanation of empathy that I highly recommend watching if empathy is new to you (it’s a very short animation explanation)
- Op-Ed: Kareem Abul-Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge – LA Times
- For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies – Sojourners
- Being Antiracist by Angela Y. Davis and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and the Smithsonian
- Historical Foundations of Race from the National Museum of Africal American History & Culture
- Be Less Racist: 12 Tips for White Dudes, by a White Dude
- Understanding White Privilege by Francis E. Kendall PhD [PDF download]
- I am Black. I am a Nurse. by Nurse Nacole – this is from a nurse I personally know, who wrote it back in 2017 about her experiences as a black nurse. While this is her personal account, I know it is consistent with many other black nurses as well because they have shared those painful details with me.
A note to nurses
I definitely want you to check out Nurse Nacole’s article (the very last one on the list). Again, as a white nurse I haven’t personally experienced racism, but I have observed it in healthcare (and regular life) many times. I’ve heard patients call black people the n-word, complain about other black caregivers or patients, I’ve even heard nurses call patients that word as well – all while I was either standing in the room or speaking to that person directly. (Please know, I did not allow those to occur unchallenged.)
I went to nursing school in rural Iowa and heard multiple white people drop that word like it was a normal word for a black person. Back around 2008 or 2009, someone from that area was telling me about how they grew up in rural Iowa and their experiences with other races. As kids growing up they thought that Martin Luther King day was just the day that banks were closed (and didn’t know why), or it was referred to as “n-word day”. Yes. You read that correctly.
These are the times we must stand up. Say something. Push back. Don’t let people who hold racist views (whether they genuinely are a product of their upbringing they never thought to question, genuine ignorance, or actually being horrible people) have a space with you to freely express them and get validation. Challenge them, so they know that racism – even subtle racism – doesn’t have a place in your presence. It doesn’t have to be perfect or some long speech with multiple references. It can be a simple response in a moment.
My encouragement is to challenge them in a lovingly and respectful way. We want to create a safe place of dialogue and discussion. If you attack, demean, and get aggressive they’re just going to shut down or get defensive. That’s when people dig their heels in even deeper. When you shame someone into submission, they most likely are not going to evolve in their way of thinking. Otherwise, you’re sowing seeds of resentment rather than inspiring them to genuinely look at someone from another culture whose life has equal value. People may outwardly change their behavior, that doesn’t mean they’ve changed their heart and mind. That’s like only giving acetaminophen for a fever, when they really need antibiotics for the infection causing the fever. The acetaminophen will make things look better momentarily, but by ignoring the root issue we’re working towards true healing and change.
For these tough moments, reflective listening is a great tool when you don’t know what to say. Reflecting back what they’ve said in a tactful way may reframe it enough for that person to realize that they’re being racist, unkind, not cool, etc.
I know these moments are awkward. I’ve experienced many myself, but momentary discomfort is much better than long term regret for not saying something (especially considering that person will probably only continue to say these ridiculous things because they know you won’t challenge them).
Talking points for tough moments
- “I’d actually appreciate it if you didn’t use that word in front of me.”
- “I’m curious what you mean by that.”
- “Tell me what you mean by that.”
- “Do you think there could be a reason for that beyond your awareness?”
- “Can I challenge you there?”
- “Do you think that there might be something more going on than we’re aware of?”
- “Have you ever heard of ______________?”
- “What’s interesting is it may seem like _____________, but have you considered that ___________?”
- “Now, I hear you there. But can I challenge you on that?”
- “Whoa, so that’s not cool”
- “It sounds like you’re saying ________, am I hearing that right?”
- “So you feel like all black people are this way?”
- Silence + a blank slate face – this is powerful, and sometimes it’s plenty for the person to realize and they back peddle
And what might be even as crucial as the words you choose are how you treat that person going forward. Now, if the person is being aggressive, racist, and unreasonable – that’s a different story. I’m talking about that person who said something overtly or subtly racist to you or around you and waited to see your response to see if they can continue to behave that way around you or not.
Don’t shun or alienate them. Encourage more dialogue and education. Share with them that great IG post you saw about antiracism with the message, “hey I think this explains what I was trying to explain the other day a lot better” or let them borrow that book, etc. Treat them with kindness and respect, without being judgemental. Don’t shame them later in front of other people as a joke. Anytime we make sure those around us feel psychologically safe, that’s where authentic growth, change, and connection occur.
After all, that’s the goal here – us all building stronger connections with one another, learning about our unique experiences, appreciating them for what they are, and providing support as we journey through life together as fellow humans.
Other ways to diversify life
- Buy your kids toys of kids from different races
- Make an effort to go to black-owned businesses
- Ensure when you’re talking about people of other races, it’s not solely in context of their race (so when a black friend is successful, they’re not successful “for a black guy,” they’re simply a successful person)
- Start a book club with friends and use one of the books listed above
- Follow influential black leaders on social media
- If you live in rural areas and literally do not see or have the opportunity to physically interact with the black community, attempt to do so online
- Bring your kids to playgrounds in diverse neighborhoods and chat it up with other parents
- Get to know black neighbors in a genuine way
- Do a lit review of research articles impacting the black community of your specific patient population and present it at a staff meeting
- Diversify your social media timelines – this is a great passive way to add to the mix, allowing that content to be automatically curated into something you’re already looking at
And I want to end on this note…
Remember, that if your growth isn’t Instagramable, you’re probably doing it right. Being a good ally means truly living life that way in the small everyday ways, as well as the more large scale actions, which typically doesn’t fit in an Instagram story. It doesn’t mean going to a march so you can snap a pic to post and leave right away. It doesn’t mean adding things to your bookshelf but not consuming their content. The last thing society’s needs is a bunch of people pretending they care to save face.
Please be sensitive to your black patients right now, especially if you are white. As their nurse, you hold a place of both power over them and responsibility to them. (When you are any patient’s nurse, you are the connection between the patient and getting their healthcare needs met, so there is certainly a power gradient present anyway.) It would be particularly prudent to be keenly aware of this as you care for black patients during this time when these terrifying headlines are constantly going on the 24-hour news networks that seem to be always on in their rooms. These situations make people even more fearful than they already were. The last thing you want your patient to question is whether or not you think their life matters.
I also encourage reaching out to your black friends and colleagues in a respectful and sensitive way. Please care. Please show up. You don’t have to be part of a specific political party to make sure your black friends and colleagues know you support them… that you can’t imagine how hard it was to see that video… that you’re right there with them and care about them as a fellow human being.
Thank you for taking the time to read this imperfect post. I took some time to try to get the right words out, but realized I cannot wait for perfection to begin the conversation.