May 24 2013
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“It’s a Lil’ Colored Girl to See You.”

Angela Amar, PhD, RN, FAAN, is an associate professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University and a Robert Wood Johnson (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar. Her research focuses on traumatic experiences, especially violence, mental health responses to trauma, and aspects of forensic nursing. This is part of a series of posts looking at diversity in the health care workforce.

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As a new nurse, I had just entered a patient’s room when he called out from the bathroom to ask his wife who was there. She replied, “it’s a lil’ colored girl to see you.” Luckily, I have a pretty good poker face and was able to not show outwardly how flustered I was inwardly. I was able to introduce myself and conduct my assessment in a professional manner. Over the next three days, I took care of this patient and as we built a relationship, he marveled and told his visitors what a great and smart nurse I was.

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While I’d like to think that I am great and smart, I happen to know that I worked on a floor full of great and smart nurses, all of whom were Caucasian. The patient commented on attributes in me that he felt were remarkable and exceptional. He didn’t conceive that ‘a lil’ colored girl’ could be great or smart until we interacted.

"We often see the benefits of diversity as being for minorities. We seldom see that the majority benefits as well."

Fast forwarding to my role as a faculty member, I’ve worked in majority serving institutions where I’m often one of two or three African American faculty members and the numbers of African American students is also small. Frequent comments on my student evaluations are: “She’s so smart. She’s really intelligent.”

While this may be true (after all, it’s not the first time I’ve heard this), it can also be said that, as most faculty have higher degrees, most faculty are considered smart. It’s not something remarkable about faculty as a whole. I checked with majority faculty and this is not a frequent comment for them. So, is it something that is remarkable because I am a woman of color? Am I an exception? Does my mere presence challenge students’ perceptions of African Americans?

I frequently hear how great it is for the African American students to have me as a role model. Undoubtedly, it is fantastic for minority students to have a member of their racial/ethnic group on the faculty. It is proof that someone who looks like them can be successful. It can also provide the students with a safe place to go with concerns, a place to be heard and understood. We often see the benefits of diversity as being for minorities. We seldom see that the majority benefits as well.

Students from a majority background also benefit from having faculty of diverse backgrounds. Successful minorities challenge stereotypes. In institutions with few minorities, the perception can be that minorities are unsuccessful. A minority faculty member offers proof that minorities can succeed in nursing and can succeed in higher education.

All students learn from the varied perspective, worldviews, and experiences of a diverse faculty and student body. A student once told me that she wasn’t aware that black art existed until she saw it on the walls in my office. My presence and the relationship we built helped her to reframe her beliefs about minorities, just as my presence challenged my patient’s beliefs about “a lil’ colored girl”. 

Diversity is not a one-way glass that only directs light in one direction. Diversity is a window—it lets light in and out. The benefits and opportunities of diversity are not just for the individuals who bring the diversity to the environment; diversity benefits everyone. Diversity transforms us all so that everything is brighter and everything shines. A wise woman, Beverly Malone, once said to me, “you cannot have excellence without diversity.” Diversity benefits us individually and collectively and allows the light to shine everywhere.

Read more about Angela Amar’s work.

Tags: Diversity, Health Care Education and Training, Health Care Workforce, Nurse Faculty Scholars, Nurses and Nursing, Nursing, Toward a More Diverse Health Care Workforce, Voices from the Field