On November 11, 2011, the undergraduate scholars from Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing’s Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing gathered for our monthly meetings.  There was something different and profound in the air.  Our familiar faces came together to discuss the delicate topic of discrimination and racism in a clinical setting.  Instead of conversing about how to balance school and responsibilities as college students, we talked about one of life’s major controversies and struggles. Deborah Washington, the Director for Diversity

From left to right: Siobhan Tellez, KILN scholar and Deborah Washington, director of Diversity Patient Care Services at MGH

Patient Care Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, guided our group of diverse students to not just lightly touch upon racial and ethnic issues but to directly weigh in the reality of race and ethnicity in our everyday lives.  As we started our discussion, we emphasized the idea that ethnicity and race are society’s way of categorizing people into groups according to common features ranging from cultural traditions to physical traits.  Furthermore, society might sometimes use race as a label and tracker to keep preset racial groups in the context of their outward characteristics (e.g. skin color and eye color).

We participated in a collective discussion on how to address discrimination in the work setting, which allowed us to obtain life application for this topic.  Deborah Washington requested us to think of scenarios that exemplified discrimination.  Then, she wanted us to direct these issues into questions and then to broadcast these questions to each other.  Our group shared the first question and asked, “What should we do if we are constantly staffed based on the similarity between the patient and our own race or ethnicity, as opposed to caring for patients who may not look like us or be culturally similar to us?” Washington gave us different ways of handling this problem.  She told us her way of transforming a sensitive topic into a communicative discussion is by replying with a question.  First, Washington wanted us to identify what specific elements of this situation (e.g. the particular pattern of pairing a minority nurse with his/her minority group) made us uneasy.  Instead of nonchalantly brushing the problem off our shoulders, Washington suggested ways to counter the problem by simply asking why are things arranged this way.  Thus, our why questions could direct people to question the issues of discrimination in the medical setting.  For example, Washington proposed a possible question such as, “Why am I assigned only these patients or is there a specific reason why I am placed with these patients?”.  With a good attitude, this unintimidating inquiry would lead into discussion rather than a messy societal debate.

Deborah Washington, director of Diversity Patient Care Services at MGH, discusses ways to address racial and ethnic stereotypes with KILN students

By the end of the meeting, the KILN scholars all agreed, to some extent, that there are stereotype hurdles we need to pass as minorities.  In particular, minorities face a need to continuously prove ourselves in a Caucasian-dominant country and to work extra hard to receive the same status or respect as our Caucasian counterparts.  When I realized that minority students (such as me being a Chinese American) have to learn how to effectively deal with societal labels, I felt uneasy about entering a workplace with a low racial and ethnic diversity.  However, after discussing with a few upper-classmen and Deb Washington about their experiences of racial prejudice, it has allowed me to learn how to direct the uneasiness into an effective catalyst for change.  As a freshman in college, I know the next four years would allow me to become more aware of the racial and ethnic representation in the nursing workforce, as well as teach me how to contribute towards achieving equal opportunity in the workplace.