The Discomfort of Being a Social Justice Warrior for Health Outcomes

Submitted by Christina Dynamite BSN, RN-BC, NC-BC

The last time I posted a vlog, it was about leaning into discomfort and the need for community support as a means of engaging in self-care. This time, I’d like to talk about how leaning into the self-growth of learning and talking about racism can be uncomfortable, but it is a way to support ourselves and the wellness of our communities.

We are in such intense times right now. We find ourselves caught between the pandemic of COVID-19, a tremendous show of support against the pandemic of racism, and a retraction of the right for transgendered people to not be discriminated against by healthcare providers.

Throughout history, nurses have stepped up as social justice warriors in transforming the health of individuals, their communities, and the culture of healthcare as a whole. As licensed, professional caregivers today, we still have an ethical imperative, even a duty, to help create equity in social and health outcomes for disadvantaged folks, not just today while it is a hot topic, but with every tomorrow.

This change starts within us, and not just outside at protests. We can learn about how implicit bias (our unconscious, learned reactions) impacts the way we interface with others and how social and political factors create more stress and reduce opportunities for our Black and Brown patients, colleagues, and friends. We can support Brown- and Black-owned businesses and restaurants or make donations to non-profits. We can and should educate ourselves about white privilege, learn the language of anti-racist work, call each other out with kindness or naming racist actions when warranted, and be humble when we are called out or called in. It is uncomfortable work, but as white allies, the truth is that our discomfort is nowhere near the stress Black and Brown people live with every day as they engage with society.

As a queer-identified mental health nurse originally from NYC, I thought I was open-minded, accepting of all people, and “not racist.” When I moved to Portland in 2016 it was a culture shock to see how white it was. According to the 2018 American Community Survey, Blacks are 24.3% of the NYC population and white non-Hispanic are 32.1%. In Portland, the white population is 70.5% and the Black population is only 5.8% (2.2% in Oregon overall).  I soon realized that by not taking steps to actively be anti-racist I fell into the category of a “well-meaning white woman.”  That kind of person is complicit, and can actually do more harm than good. I needed to learn to use my voice and white privilege to advocate for and uplift Black and Brown people, not just as a healthcare provider, but as a human.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in NYC and been exposed to a wide variety of cultures. It reduces the tendency to ‘otherize’ people that don’t look like me, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t do it out of unconscious habit.  My experiences also provide me with some evidence of what we are hearing about on media because I have seen subtle discrimination with friends. One night in Brooklyn, NY, I was waiting for a cab (before apps) with my friend Jason, a fellow nursing student who happens to be a Black man. A passing taxi turned off its available light, passed us by, and turned the light back on further down the street before picking up another ride.

I think about Black and Brown friends who moved out of NYC and have experienced shouts to “go back to your country” and other forms of discrimination on a regular basis in other states. Another friend recently shared about how she was approached by a white stranger promoting religion and because she was Asian he assumed she was a doctor, among other things.

My learning doesn’t stop at being a witness, however. Now that I’m more aware of how my knee-jerk biases are wired, I can catch myself in the act.  One time I was browsing for a pet sitter on Rover.com and caught myself initially only considering white people. To me, this was really shocking since in NYC I rarely looked at white people on dating sites.

I also consider ways in which I am perpetuating microaggressions with coworkers and patients. I have never asked to touch a white coworkers’ hair; why would I ask to touch a Black coworker’s hair? Do I mentally note or comment that my Hispanic patient has a lot of family visiting and that they are loud? Do I draw a different line in the sand when evaluating whether my mental health client is agitated if they are Black or white, even if they are justifiably upset because someone treated them wrongly?

Last year I was able to be part of the Oregon Health Authority’s DELTA program which ultimately was a really intense collective of healthcare workers learning about ways and systems that individuals create to dismantle oppression. It was super uncomfortable every week and I am so grateful for that experience because it gave me the confidence to start talking about racism with others. The burden to create change should not be on the shoulders of Black and Brown people; besides which, when oppressive systems are still in place, they are being set up to fail. Those of us who are white people need to help remove barriers and create bridges for success.

To grow in courage and fortitude as an anti-racist ally is a conscious decision that I have made. I hope my white colleagues will make it with me…

One self-reflection at a time (resource: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html)
one conversation at a time (resource: https://www.raceforward.org/practice/tools/10-ways-start-conversation-about-race)
one decision to speak up a time (resource: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/speak-up/six-steps-to-speak-up).

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