I have resisted writing this blog for some time, as I feel that my role, during this time of visible racial tension and the recognition of police brutality, is to simply listen and learn. At the same time, as a nurse, I have an ethical responsibility to speak out. According to provision one of the ANA Code of Ethics, it is my duty to have ‘compassion for the inherent dignity, worth and unique attributes of every person.’ Provision eight states that I ‘collaborate with the public to protect human rights’, while provision nine asks that I ‘integrate principles of social justice into nursing’ (American Nurse Association, 2015).
Up until recently, I have lived my life believing there was a right and wrong answer to all problems and, if I’m being honest, my goal was to seek out the truth so that I could be on the ‘right’ side of every issue. As someone with a very type A personality, I find comfort in structure and I long for clear, undisputable answers. The issues we are facing in this country are revealing that many of life’s problems are complicated… and very messy… and I hate that.
At the risk of making a mistake or saying the ‘wrong’ thing, I am simply going to share my story, as I feel that stories are what connect us. When it comes to racial issues in my personal life, two situations come to mind. First, while in college in 1991, I entered a record store with a friend of mine who was from the country of Trinidad and Tobago. He is of African descent and has dark skin. Since we were just coming from class, we both had our backpacks with us. Upon entering the store, my friend was asked to place his backpack behind the counter. I was a bit confused, but I continued to move toward the rock and roll section of the store. My friend walked over to the reggae music aisle and was followed by the clerk, who did not ask him if he needed assistance, but was simply watching him. Still confused, I continued to peruse the Van Halen cds and shrugged off the incident. It was not until we left the store that my friend told me that the clerk assumed he was going to steal something. I remember feeling very angry and also, very helpless. I could have walked back into the store and confronted the clerk, but I did nothing.
More recently, while teaching at a university where the student body is comprised of over 50% minority students, numerous students of color (Black and Latino) reported being pulled over by police to and from my nursing clinical course, which was located at a health care facility in a predominantly white suburb. On each occasion (and there have been several), the students were stopped by the police, asked what they were doing in this part of town, and were sent on their way, without issuing any citations (as they were not breaking any laws… which begs the question, why were they pulled over in the first place?). To my knowledge, none of my white students have been pulled over by the police on their way to or from the clinical setting. Again, I felt angry and helpless. Did I take any action? No.
In each situation above, I was unsure of which action to take, so I took no action. Which make my actions racist (as opposed to antiracist).
It’s also important to discuss law enforcement in this issue. First and foremost, it is both inhumane and criminal to engage in brutality and/or abuse of power in any way, especially by someone who is trusted to ‘protect and serve.’ It should go without saying that law enforcement officers engaging in these tactics should be held accountable, without special protection. That being said, I also feel a sense of compassion and sadness for the police officers who are behaving in an ethical manner and dutifully serving to keep their citizens and communities safe. The issues in law enforcement around racial profiling and police brutality feel eerily similar to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church. Yes, there were numerous priests who acted unconscionably, and abused their power, but there were also priests, who were very loving human beings who humbly committed themselves to a life of service to the Catholic faith.
Not all cops are bad and not all priests are pedophiles. It is not fair to paint either of these groups with a broad brush.
In reflecting on the events that have taken place since the murder of George Floyd, I made a conscious decision to take actions that align with my spirit and demonstrate compassion for others. I met with local activists and listened to their stories to better understand their experiences. I publicly called out a business that locked its doors to peaceful protestors. I wrote letters to local political leaders in support of a business (that the city was considering closing) that promotes diverse cultures coming together. I walked in marches against police brutality and I thanked the law enforcement officers who were directing traffic to allow the protestors to cross the street. I have learned to ask questions, especially to those I tend to disagree with. More importantly, I have tried to do so without a resentful or judgmental spirit (which has been difficult). My intention is to seek to understand and to have the courage to speak up with integrity, regardless of my discomfort.
I recognize that these are very small actions, but they are actions- and as a nurse, I have an ethical obligation to step out of the shadows, be willing to make mistakes, and speak out. Will I say the wrong thing or take the wrong action at times? I’m positive I will, but I am willing to take that risk. And though I will likely always wish for simple ‘black and white’ answers, I am slowly learning to navigate the ‘gray’ of this world, one day at a time.
American Nurse Association (2015). Code of Ethics for Nursing with Interpretive Statements. Retrieved from, https://www.nursingworld.org/coe-view-only