In honor of this month's Juneteenth holiday and in recognition of the challenges facing the African American community that we’re seeing highlighted through the Black Lives Matter protests, Fast Layne Solutions CEO Christopher Hughey connected with a hospice administrator and nurse this past week to talk about what it means to be a healthcare leader of color. This blog article is based on that conversation.
Due to the contentious nature of these topics, our interviewee, whom we will call Pam, has asked to remain anonymous. She is a middle-aged African American healthcare leader based in the South.
Pam is many things: nurse, healthcare leader and administrator, mother.
She is also African American.
What went through your mind when I added that last fact and how do you think it impacts those other labels that describe Pam? Many people these days want us to ignore race. They tell us it shouldn’t matter, so we should simply disregard it. For them, that is how we will end racism: just pretend race isn’t even a thing and all will be well! So let’s examine how being Black in America in 2020 changes how Pam has to manage her life and then re-ask that question at the end.
Being a nurse v being a Black nurse:
One day, in her role as a nurse, Pam (a highly qualified medical professional) and her colleague (her White assistant) arrived at a home to visit an ailing, elderly patient in hospice care. The patient’s wife answered the door in a panic as her husband had just lost control of his bowels and the result was a very unpleasant mess. The wife was also quite distressed as she was uncertain how to administer her husband’s anti-anxiety medication and needed a nurse to help her with it. Upon seeing a Black woman and a White woman at her door, she immediately handed towels and a bath basin to Pam and the medication to her White assistant.
Does 'White privilege' mean that that White assistant has never had struggles in her own life? That becoming a nurse's assistant was easy for her? That she faces no personal challenges of her own? No. Of course not. All people face struggles in life. But what White privilege does mean is that her skin color doesn’t add to those struggles. And it means people don’t draw on centuries of stereotypes and oppression and shove cleaning supplies in her hands when she walks in the room based on the automatic assumption that she must be the ‘help’.
Being a healthcare leader and administrator v being a Black healthcare leader and administrator:
Being a healthcare administrator and leading a team of providers and staff are two challenging responsibilities for anyone. But when you add in the African American experience, it can become more than just challenging. At times, it can become next to impossible, especially in an age when we are seeing dog-whistled approval of racist attitudes coming from the highest levels of our country’s leadership. This has impacted Pam’s life directly. She supervises a staff of almost four dozen people in an area of the country already not known for its racial tolerance. Of late, the climate of tension has made her job even more difficult, with some staff openly disrespecting her. And it is impossible to gloss over the impact America’s political toxicity is having on this aspect of her life: she has noticed, for example, that such behavior is measurably worse the day after a televised ‘Make America Great Again’ rally. But as a business leader, she can’t mandate people’s politics or attitudes, and she also faces the constant stress of walking the line between maintaining control of her organization and being cast as the ‘angry Black woman.’
None of these are challenges faced by White healthcare leaders and administrators.
Being a mother v being a Black mother:
One day recently, Pam, a Black mother of biracial adult children, noticed that her son’s car had a malfunctioning taillight as he was pulling out of her driveway. She had a moment of panic and stopped him before he could leave, insisting he take her car instead. When she recounted this story to her White friend, whom she has known for decades and who has an adult son roughly the same age as Pam’s, her friend was puzzled that Pam would be so adamant about her son switching cars. After all, a non-working taillight isn’t such a danger to vehicle safety, and even if he got a ticket for it, it would be a minor offense. Pam had to explain to her friend that none of those everyday considerations was going through her mind when she panicked and made her son change cars. This wasn’t about such mundane factors as vehicle maintenance or insurance costs or ticket court dates. No, when Pam saw that darkened taillight, what she had to picture was her gentle giant of a son being shot to death because a nervous cop approaching a car occupied by a large, dark-skinned male panicked when he saw that man reach for his license. She had to picture herself identifying his body while listening to the police explain how her son’s death was his own fault for acting ‘suspiciously,’ how a wallet can look like a gun in the heat of the moment. She had to imagine White social media explaining to her that none of this would have happened had he simply maintained his car properly (because apparently we have capital punishment for burnt-out bulbs if you’re Black). Her White friend was aghast at all this. It had never occurred to her to fear such outcomes from something so trivial as a broken taillight.
Being a mother is hard for every woman. And being a mom isn’t made easy by being White. But it also isn’t made harder, either. And it doesn’t include the grim task of teaching your children how to behave ‘just so’ to avoid ending up dead after even minor encounters with law enforcement, encounters that would be at most a mild annoyance to the majority of White people.
The purpose of this article isn’t to solve racism. We don’t have those answers for you.
So we’ll just close by first asking that same question again:
How do you think race impacts Pam’s roles in life?
And we’ll add another on which to end:
After reading about Pam's experiences, do you think America can solve racism by simply ignoring the role of race in our society?
Postscript: Another thing to consider when asking if race matters is this: we were originally going to use Pam's real name and the name of her town. But after reading the draft, she asked that we make her contribution anonymous, and understandably so. If racism is 'over' in America, why does an African American healthcare administrator have to fear for her job (and potentially even her safety) for simply discussing actual events from her life with the CEO of a small company? Again, we don't have the answers. But we do feel it's time for everyone of every race in America to start asking themselves these questions.