As part of the generation that grew up with the first rounds of equality training in public schools, it still shocks me when I come across discrimination. I grew up in the South Eastern United States (North Carolina to be exact) and to be perfectly honest, I’ve seen more discrimination since leaving what most consider the most racially intolerant part of the US. Of course, there were many instances of racial intolerance where I grew up. With a tiny town in rural North Carolina in the 1980′s, raised by great-grandparents in turn were raised during the Great Depression – some things were an everyday occurrence.
In fact, all terms that I learned later on in life that were used to insult people of other races, religions, and sexual preference came from younger people. Sure, they had to have learned it somewhere. Perhaps because of the jokes and stereotypes about the South people hid their intolerance more – but I can’t say the same for other states in the South, only the region I grew up in.
One thing that struck me as odd, was that one nursing home I worked in had only Caucasian CNAs. This is in New York, which I had always assumed was very tolerant and accepting of all people…before moving here. I didn’t really realize the racism at my new workplace until I remarked to a co-worker on the professionalism. She replied, “It’s nothing like a bus-line nursing home.” I didn’t understand what she meant, so I asked. She explained then about how nursing homes located where the city buses stopped had a higher number of African-American aides, which in turn was mentioned that those aides were not professional or caring.
That was my first experience with the racism that can rear its ugly head in the workplace. Later, I actually worked at a ‘bus line’ nursing home. Over half of the aides that I worked with were of a different race, several were male and gay, a few others were pagans. You could say that we had a diverse mix! While the first facility was very professional, the second ‘bus line’ facility was a little more relaxed. Not bordering on unprofessional, but a relaxed air of co-workers that were not worried about appearing perfectly pressed for guests – the ‘bus line’ CNAs were more interested in how their residents were feeling and making an emotional connection.
Some residents would prefer to receive care from female aides, which would hinder our teams, but was understandable from a female resident. There were a few times that residents would be rude to ethnic aides – regardless of their ethnicity. Most of the time this came from residents suffering from dementia, but on occasion you would hear a slur from a resident or even a family member that had no dementia to blame for their rudeness.
So what did this do for me? A few things. I learned that skin color has a large impact on your perception as a professional – and that your ethnic heritage does even if your skin is light. I’m of mixed heritage, Native American, African American, and Caucasian. I appear white, but when mentioned (my heritage) in casual conversation, I noticed a change in how I was treated by co-workers. Whites were more careful of their racial jokes or comments, and black co-workers were more relaxed around me. I can’t pretend to understand the emotional impact of the day in and day out racism people of immediate ethnic appearance experience.
One last thing that I learned – professionalism is not just your uniform. It is the care you provide to your residents, no matter how many slurs they spout, no matter how your co-workers see your skin, religion, or sex….your work shows your pride. I’m proud to say that I learned my best care strategies from ‘bus line’ aides.