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Is our beloved NHS a racist institution?


It always surprises me when I discover prejudice in the NHS. Our beloved NHS, which I have such respect for, cannot possibly be an institution that perpetuates racism, can it?

I have spent the year touring the country at our Nursing Times Careers Live events with Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who won our Nursing Times Chief Nursing Officers’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

If you haven’t read her brilliant book Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union – about her life as the illegitimate child of a Nigerian-born father and white Irish Catholic mother, as well as her journey through nursing – you really should.

She speaks candidly about colleagues who believed she would never progress to being a ward sister because she was black. In the 1950s and 1960s she met colleagues who thought of her as “different”, and were ignorant that Africa was a continent not a country, and that someone like her could have been British-born even though her skin “was a little dark”.

“It seems prejudice is surviving and thriving in the NHS”

Was that ignorance an excusable sign of the times, and is that kind of ignorance still excusable in today’s modern multi-cultural UK and its health service?

Dame Elizabeth has told me there is no such thing as “unconscious bias” and feels strongly that leaders, managers and colleagues must do everything they can to encourage and inspire their black and minority ethnic (BME) staff to take on new roles, go for promotion and feel able to speak out about how they are treated and what holds them back from progressing.

At Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust’s health professionals conference this week, matron Rukeya Miah spoke about her experiences of being passed over for promotion - initially because of discrimination.

Ms Miah, originally from South Africa, highlighted how very few BME staff make it beyond band 7. During the lunchbreak, I met two more nurses, originally from overseas, who echoed these thoughts.

Still, it seems prejudice is surviving and thriving in the NHS. We have not cured the institution of it, though I want to highlight some good work going on. Barts Health Trust runs a support group for nurses who feel unable to progress because of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background.

“The truth is the colour of someone’s skin or where they were born doesn’t preclude them from being a senior manager. Yet many people feel it does”

It’s a stunning project designed to build confidence, and I’ve met some nurses who have found success in their personal and professional lives as a result of taking part in this project, which was also a 2016 Nursing Times Awards winner – this time in the Team of the Year category.

At the moment, the workforce crisis is so dire that the NHS is not just being supported by overseas staff – it’s being propped up entirely by them. They are its essential lifeforce. But it’s more than just the fact we are short of nurses that means we must embrace our overseas colleagues.

To represent our multicultural local communities effectively, we must have voices advocating for them who understand them – and who are them.

Society is changing, and our workforce must reflect that at all levels. The NHS Constitution’s values are to uphold equality – and yet is that principle of equality being as keenly applied to its staff as it is to its patients?

The truth is, the colour of someone’s skin or where they were born doesn’t preclude them from being a senior manager, from ascending to certain leadership roles or being good at a specific role. Yet many people feel that it does.

Dame Elizabeth’s tagline for 2017, her 70th birthday year, eloquently demonstrates how and why prejudice can be overcome: “1947 – born in shame, 2017 – made a dame”.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Are you kidding me? The racist card against us again! Don't encourage it please it's bad enough as it is, the culture you describe I have found to be very racist against whites, enough said. I have been on the receiving end of it. Racism works both ways you know, let's not keep playing the victim card anymore, and see it for what it is, some immigrants come, claim racism yet it is they that are the true racists. Open your eyes. Wake up and smell the roses so to speak. Stop lying in the past and respect one another, not play a'racist' card victim game due to not accepting it when it's more accurately a lack of respect and not racism that is the problem.

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  • 'Stop living in the past' that was meant to say.

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  • So on this basis, presumably, one must be completely knowledgeable of all cultures from around the globe, else they are otherwise racist....?
    Surely racism is more about the attitude toward someone because they are perceived as "different"; singling out and being treated differently; it is about hatred and the incitement of hatred, based on race/ethnicity. Whilst such attitudes may be borne out of ignorance, I do not consider individuals should be labelled as racist just because they lack knowledge. Just because someone lacks knowledge, does not automatically make them prejudiced

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  • I am writing in response to 05:19 am. I am very sorry to hear that nurses have been racist towards you. However I bet that that experience was only one episode and you seem soooo upset. Well imagine that happening to you day after day after day. From your colleagues, the patients and not to mention their relatives. And when you leave work and think your day of discrimination is over you have the next door neighbor shouting derogatory language at you. So pleaaase cry me a river about your discrimination as a white person. Personally I don't think you really knows what you are talking about. I was passed over twice for a post that I was very qualified for it was given to a newly qualified inexperienced nurse who by the way stayed in position for only 3 months!! She left because of the stress of the role but was given the job becuase she goes to costa with the manager and fit in well. This is not about the past it is the present. I agree with you everybody needs to respect one another and that includes you because without those so-called immigrants working in the NHS, you'll be working alone!!!

    12:54 lack of knowledge I think not as a child is taught to love they are also thought to hate. If a person is hearing everyday that immigrants are taking our jobs and I hate this person or that person because of their color of their skin this is not about lack of knowledge. This is willful racism and it is embedded. As we are all nurses here why would go into a profession where the expectations would be that you care for patients of another race? If you are inclined to be racist towards a colleague you are inclined to treat patients of another race differently. I know people who goes to equality Nd diversity training and I still hear them making derogatory remarks. It is embedded and for some people it's for life.

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  • 6:20; you are right - there is systemic racism in our society and hatred is learned and fostered by some - but you miss my point....I never said there was not systemic racism; merely that it is wrong to judge people just because they do not know or have have no understanding of a particular culture/creed/country/religion etc. Fear and misunderstanding can also fuel racism. The bottom line is we all need to stop being quite so judgmental - whether that is people being judgmental of someone because of their colour/creed or a person of colour being judgmental of those who perhaps have not had the opportunity to learn of of their culture. Why not instead foster a culture of listening, understanding and learning...?

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