The Everyday Racism Preventing Nurses From Doing Their Best Work: Part II

While our last post brought to attention the concerning pattern of racism faced by nurses of color, sometimes with disturbing frequency, this second part hopes to propose some solutions. While the true heart of the problem – systemic racism – isn’t something easily tackled, or something that promises to go away anytime soon, there are things we can do to chip away at it, and alleviate the pain it causes for those who must face it. This post will touch upon some of those possibilities.

So, what can we do?

There are many articles and blog posts out there advising nurses on how they can deal with patients who express prejudice towards them. However, while some of these methods are helpful, those who are victims of racism shouldn’t feel pressured to just “deal with it” or educate patients, since this unfairly punishes them more than the patient for their intolerant behavior. However, people have a right to refuse care if they don’t want to be treated by a particular individual, so walking the line between policy and decency can be dicey. Here is a breakdown of some ways in which that line might be walked:

  • Institute no-tolerance policies.Colleagues that minimize racist comments and events as “part of the territory” of treating patients as a minority nurse are diminishing the support system that can exist within a hospital.[1]Departments or entire hospitals can work towards minimizing events and their dismissal by instituting policies in which reporting discrimination is strongly encouraged.
  • Give patients an all-or-nothing stance.Instead of giving in to patients, thus validating their racism, nurses and staff members can tell patients demanding white staff that they can either receive treatment from the staff of color on duty or no one at all.[2]Then, if the patient rejects care, they can either live with it, or seek care at another hospital.
  • Leverage family members.Many individuals who refuse care from nurses of color might be convinced by relatives who don’t share the same prejudice.[3]If in an emergency care setting or otherwise, using a patient’s loved ones to change their mind could solve a problem you can’t by yourself.
  • Never condone actions of a racist patient. Take every opportunity to call out a patient for any racist behavior or remarks, publically, even if they are in isolation.[4]Staff of all races should be aware of how they act around the patient; white nurses can show that such behavior is not tolerated by anyone in the wing by being just as vigilant about calling out this behavior.
  • Talk to your department.Institutions can track and collect data on patient-staff interactions to help determine the scale of a problem in a given setting, and this can ultimately help bring to light greater issues that need to be addressed. No-tolerance policies of discrimination, or even pacts among a team, can mean a better, stronger staff, ready to assert their rights.[5]


When it Comes to Needs, It Shouldn’t Be a Contest

Many nurses believe a patient’s comfort and trust come first, claiming that being patient-centered requires your own needs to take a backseat.[6]However, it’s important to remember that employees have a right to exist in a workplace free from discrimination, and nurses have successfully sued employers who have required them to accommodate the racist demands of patients. It is possible to be both patient-centered and in a position to defend your own safety, wellbeing, and value as both a medical professional, and as a human being.


[1]Howard, Jacqueline, “Racism in Medicine: An ‘Open Secret,’” CNN, Oct. 26, 2016,

[2]Farmer, Robin, “The Impact of Racist Patients,” Minority Nurse,Oct. 15, 2014,

[3]Paul-Emile, Kimani, Smith, Alexander K., Lo, Bernard, and Alicia Fernandez, “Dealing with Racist Patients”, The New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 25, 2016,

[4]“How to Deal With a Racist Patient”,  Nursing Link, n.d.,


[6]Farmer, “The Impact of Racist Patients”