February 21, 2013

Issac J. Bailey | Racism conundrum faced by hospital and black nurse

I remember interviewing a white man who refused to shake my black hand.

I remember interviewing a white man who refused to shake my black hand.

He was OK with my asking him questions about the economy, the reason for the interview. He just didn’t want my race to taint his, I guess.

This was years ago at Inlet Square Mall.

My colleague, a white photojournalist, didn’t take too kindly to the gesture but didn’t make much of a stink when she saw that I had continued asking questions through a smile.

I could have moved on to another person, could have found someone else who shared his view of economic conditions.

But I’m the stubborn sort. I refuse to allow others to dictate how I do my job.

I didn’t tell readers about the incident because the story was about the economy, not racism.

I told my wife, but only in passing, which is pretty much how I deal with all such slights.

They are few and far between but often hard to forget.

It’s why I rarely mention them but remain confounded.

Is it better to mention such things and risk giving them more attention than they deserve, potentially deepening already-present divisions?

Or should one swallow them and risk not giving them enough attention, allowing them to fester and grow unchecked?

A black nurse faced a similar conundrum at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich., where she has worked for a quarter of a century.

A patient who had a Swastika tattooed on his arm demanded that no black nurse take care of his white infant.

The hospital not only assigned white nurses to the child but also penned a note that harkened back to the “no coloreds allowed” signs that hang mostly in museums today.

“No African-American nurse to take care of baby,” it reportedly read.

The nurse decided to sue the medical center in what seems a clear case of racial discrimination.

But it’s not a clear-cut case.

Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach has not faced anything like this, said Joan Carroza, the hospital’s spokeswoman.

“We have never had a request related to race,” she said. “Patients do have rights and responsibilities in all hospitals and any requests to change a caregiver would be discussed with the nurse director or caregiver.”

A hospital’s mission is not to serve nurses, black or otherwise; it is to serve patients, gang-bangers, Neo-Nazis and everyone in between.

The Michigan hospital could have told the father to take the child elsewhere, or forced him to accept whichever nurse on duty.

Or hospital officials could have simply explained to black members of the staff the untenable situation it was facing.

They could have said they were disgusted by the man’s request, that they were invaluable employees and would always be afforded the respect they deserve.

They could have then said that there was a small baby who, through no fault of his own, was thrust into the middle of an ugly situation but needed the quality care the hospital could provide.

I suspect that if the nurse’s supervisor had done that instead of writing an insulting, race-tinged note, there would be no lawsuit and the black nurses would have swallowed their pride the way I did at Inlet Square Mall.

But people too often tiptoe around tough discussions of race, having convinced themselves the problem will go away the less attention it receives – a logic not applied to any other societal problem.

No one claims that the rising obesity rate will reverse itself or cancers disappear if we stopped talking about or trying to treat them.

Why do we do that with race?

I don’t fault the hospital for responding to the man’s demand. It makes sense to try to accommodate a patient’s request. And the man has a right to dislike black people while expecting service from an institution serving the public.

The nurse’s position also presents a legitimate question. If this is legal, what other types of racial discrimination are as well? How many other times must she take it quietly on the chin?

An editor has never told me I couldn’t complete an assignment because I was black.

If that ever happened, I’m not sure I wouldn’t react the way that nurse did instead of stubbornly, quietly pushing forward in the face of racial hostility.

Sometimes there are no easy or “right” answers when it comes to race.

This case is one of those times.

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