Latest posts by Pam Savage (see all)

Over the last few weeks I have read a couple of novels that focused on historical stories about peoples in places riven by religious, political and historical differences. One of these books, “Birds without Wings” by Louis de Bernières so engaged me I gave folk bleeding ears talking about it. It was a story set in Turkey just prior to the twentieth century and through WWI about the upheavals and massacres which arose from territorial and religious differences. This story really stayed with me and perhaps because of it a number of articles and novels since have seemed to me to have strong themes relating to mistreatment and abuses of folk on the basis of them being “other”.

This logically (to me anyway) led to me contemplating the matter of racism and it occurred to me I really wasn’t up to speed with any changes to legislation dealing with racism and racial vilification in Australia. In Australia it is the Human Rights Commission that has the responsibility for Age, Disability, Racial and Sexual Discrimination laws. Complaints lodged with the Commission are investigated and conciliated by them.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was the result of International Conventions and a steady change in Australia’s political and social approach to human rights in the decades before it was enacted. Not being a student of history all these changes were interesting and reading about them linked law to a fairly dismaying history about how people have been treated. This little exploration then got me wondering about racism in nursing.   I have worked in many countries and worked with health staff from all over the world. I have observed racism in nursing. Overseas trained staff I taught struggled with the health culture, language and attitudes they experienced. Equally at times Australian health staff and patients struggled with the accents and approaches of staff from overseas.

So I went looking, fully aware that our nursing Codes expressly forbids racism; The Code of Professional Conduct statement 4 says; Nurses respect the dignity, culture, ethnicity, values and beliefs of people receiving care and treatment, and of their colleagues.

So it was a bit depressing to find a very large number of articles and reports proposing that racism is entrenched in nursing. Truman, Mills & Usher (2011) stated, “Nurses are members and Representative of Australian society and Australia is a race-centered society in which people are socialized into ‘race-laden’ vocabulary, cultural images, and attitudes” (p. 3). If this is a fact then are nurses innocent of racism when expressing our Australianness?

I don’t think so. None of us is unaware of the ideals of nursing and the principles governing our care and attitudes. I do think we are often oblivious of how words or behaviours can hurt someone who can only interpret them as racist. Every article focused on nursing racism, identified how it is hidden. The fact is that nursing does not directly focus on nor examine ways we express racism. Most authors called for it to be held up to the light of day and insisted it must be addressed and corrected.

A number of articles were very sociological in their language and context, many were specific to how racism towards Indigenous Australians is expressed and a couple of surveys identified the health effects on people experiencing racism. A British article by Yasmin Gunaratnam 2014, explored the findings of the McPherson Report into Police in 1999 and a number of articles since describing how racism was expressed in the UK health system. She stated:

Institutional racism is more than conscious racism. It includes “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” Although racism can be direct in health care, the ways in which it is also “unwitting” are rarely discussed.
I have to agree, racism in nursing is not something we can comfortably point to and say we are innocent and blameless. I think we should be aware of how we might unwittingly be failing our own standards.   You and I can’t change the world and our history but we can be conscious of the ways, (in spite of our strident claims we are not, not ever, racist), we could be demonstrating prejudice and attitudes that we must shake off.