Who’s Caring for Black Nurses? We Challenge Our Colleagues to be Allies

Who’s Caring for Black Nurses? We Challenge Our Colleagues to be Allies

By: Dr. Patty Wilson, Dr. Shaquita Starks & Dr. Frieda Hopkins Outlaw

Black people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 and violent murders without justice served. It impacts black nurses professionally and personally when we must continue “business as usual,” often without support from our places of work and with non-black colleagues who do not acknowledge our lived experience. We ask, “Who’s caring for us?”

“I can’t breathe…”

These were the final words that George Floyd spoke as he lay hand-cuffed and face down on concrete, pleading for his life for 8 minutes and 46 seconds; his neck compressed under the knee of white, 18-year veteran Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. People around the world heard his cry, and many Black Americans were unable to function after viewing the video. We know all too well the thousands of black lives stolen by police brutality.

Floyd’s murder was even more tragic because it played out in real-time against the backdrop of a global pandemic that unequally impacts Black people in the U.S.

We are experiencing a double pandemic that includes COVID-19 and racism; we’re traumatized watching George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery’s brutal police and vigilante murders unfold back-to-back. When Black American victims of police brutality do not receive justice, it is a triggering reminder of past injustices, such as Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Emmitt Till, and too many others.

Yet Black nurses continue to work and try to focus on our nursing responsibilities while we quietly grieve. How much more can we take, and who cares?

Black nurses need care, and we challenge our colleagues to be allies.

Many institutional leaders (and nurses in general) do not recognize the trauma that is the lived experience of Black nurses. And yet caring and compassion are essential traits required of nurses in practice, according to Watson’s Theory of Human Caring.

“Care” is achieved by forming a relationship with people and accepting them as they are (a critical element of diversity). When we practice “care” from a trauma-informed perspective, we can account for the unrecognized and untreated trauma that may result in poor physical and mental health, both of which disproportionately impact people of African descent. Black nurses provide care, but we are not immune to race-based trauma and subsequent toxic stress.

Like being a nurse, being an ally requires compassion and empathy. What’s more, allyship helps promote health equity and can be an act of resistance to racism within our profession. So here is a list (though not exhaustive) of strategies to help you on your journey to becoming an ally to your Black nurse colleagues.

  1. Know what people did when they were not allies Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. This novel tackles race, privilege, justice, and compassion in a hospital setting and describes how nurses were not allies to a black nurse.
  2. Educate yourself. Read non-nursing literature that explores the issues of racism and white supremacy, such as How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and watch movies such as 13th produced by Ava DuVernay, the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson which is also a film, and an old classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
  3. Practice active listening without judgment or defensiveness . Give the person your full attention and avoid evaluating or judging what they are saying. Be present at the moment by not focusing on your response.
  4. Speak up and speak out when you see or hear racist acts or slurs. When you witness injustice and do not speak up, you are saying it is OK–to be silent is to be complicit. You can learn more about how to do this from organizations like Baltimore Racial Justice Action and Showing Up for Racial Justice.
  5. Understand white privilege, first introduced by Peggy McIntosh in a seminal paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack Peggy McIntosh. Similar readings include Me and White Supremacy by Laala Saad or White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin D’Angelo. Another useful source is the work of Jane Elliot’s, The Blue Eyes Project.
  6. Become self-aware about implicit bias (e.g., learning about implicit bias, and microaggressions). You can find out about your implicit associations with race and Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation by Derald Wing Sue and Philip Atiba Goff’s TED talk, How to Make Racism a Solvable Problem and Disparities in the Academy: Accounting for the Elephant edited by Veronica Nije-Carr, Yolonda Niemann, and Phyllis Sharps.

This blog is a part of the “Dialogues in Health Equity” series by the Health Equity Faculty Interest Group. They are committed to decreasing health disparities experienced by local and global communities by promoting social justice and health equity through nursing practice, research, education, and service.

Dialogues in Health Equity


Patty Wilson’s clinical practice and research focus on improving the lives of those who have experienced trauma and working to create community-based interventions that address social determinants of health and promote health equity in underserved minority populations. Dr. Wilson is a co-Principal Investigator of the Passport to Freedom program, which provides psycho-educational sessions to women to promote self-awareness of the link between trauma and health and strategies to cope with symptoms of trauma/stress. Dr. Wilson practices as a PMHNP in a community-based behavioral health office in Baltimore City. She is an alum of the ANA/SAMHSA Minority Fellowship Program and completed her doctoral and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner studies at the University of Virginia School of Nursing.

Dr. Shaquita Starks is a dually certified Psychiatric Mental Health and Family Nurse Practitioner. She has been a nurse for a total of 22 years. Dr. Starks received an Associate’s Degree in Nursing from Holmes Community College in Grenada, MS, in 1998. She received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a Master of Science in Nursing, and a Ph.D. in Nursing Science in 2006, 2007, and 2016, respectively, from The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis, TN. Dr. Starks is currently an Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing at UTHSC and teaches in the DNP program and mentors Ph.D. students. Dr. Starks currently practices telehealth part-time at Harmony Health & Wellness, a private mental health clinic in Memphis, TN, where she cares for patients ages 13 and up with mental health disorders. Dr. Starks is also an alum of the ANA/SAMHSA Minority Pre and Post Doc Fellowship Program.

Freida Hopkins Outlaw received her Baccalaureate in Nursing from Berea College, Masters in Psychiatric Nursing from Boston College and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America, and completed her postdoctoral study at the University of Pennsylvania. She has over forty years of experience as a clinician, researcher, educator, and policy maker in public mental health. She is currently the Executive Program Consultant for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Minority Fellowship Program at the American Nurses Association.


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