Diversity Is a Window: It Lets Light In and Out

Aug 15, 2013, 5:17 PM, Posted by

A nurse gives a patient a TB test.

When patients carry racist attitudes into the health care setting along with their illnesses and injuries, how should nurses and other providers of color respond?

While some patient attitudes can be insulting, to say the very least, Angela Amar, PhD, RN, FAAN, says such a patient encounter can also provide a learning opportunity.

In a post on RWJF's Human Capital blog, Amar recalls a particularly challenging incident when she was 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," Amar writes. "She replied, 'it’s a lil’ colored girl to see you.'”

Over the three days in which Amar treated her patient, "he marveled and told his visitors what a great and smart nurse I was."

As if, in other words, those attributes in an African American nurse might be construed as remarkable and exceptional. Amar writes: "He didn't conceive that 'a lil' colored girl' could be great or smart until we interacted."

Now an associate professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University and a Robert Wood Johnson (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar, Amar believes she serves as a role model for African American students. But, just as Amar's early experience helped challenge one patient's beliefs, the presence of successful minorities on the faculty helps reframe majority student attitudes as well.

To be sure, there are no easy answers to the challenge of prejudice in the health care workplace, as a recent New York Times blog post strongly suggests. The medical profession still has a lot of work to do to resolve its attitude towards race and ethnicity. Intolerance and abuse are not, as author Pauline Chen,  MD, argues, just part of the job.

Still, Angela Amar believes that in the long run, diversity benefits everyone. "Diversity is not a one-way glass that only directs light in one direction," she concludes. "Diversity is a window—it lets light in and out."

Read Amar's post on RWJF's Human Capital blog