Racism in the
NHS documented

New film highlights the problem in the North

Hero image

Like everyone, Gemma Newbold, who is mixed race, was keen to make a good impression on her first day in a new job as a community nurse in the Peak District.

When somebody asked about her family, she spoke about her brother only to be left stunned when a manager asked if he had a big penis. This highly racialised phrase is used today as evidence of black men’s hyper-sexuality and aggression.

Abuse and discrimination

“When I was asked about my young son, I showed them his photo,” said Newbold. “He is much lighter skinned than me. They said it was good he did not resemble me as he would have better opportunities as he got older.

“I wanted to make a good impression but I also needed to set some boundaries. I could not do so. All afternoon I felt uncomfortable.”

Such levels of racism are not uncommon across the NHS and they have been highlighted in an hour-long documentary, Exposed – Nursing Narratives. The catalyst for the production was the large numbers of deaths arising from Covid among Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff.

However, the 19 nurses, care workers and midwives who appear in the film, many with decades of caring for people, reveal a catalogue of abuse and discrimination dating back years.

Newbold, now an immunisation nurse, was courageous enough to be interviewed. On screen she says that when she said how tired she was as she had more patients to look after than another white nurse, the response was that it beat being a slave and she should consider herself lucky as there had been 13 other applicants for her post.

When she defended herself saying “I think that’s because I worked really hard and had the knowledge and skills,” she was told she got the job to tick a box because of her ethnicity.

Newbold realised her ambition to be a nurse when she qualified in 2009 and became a community nurse working around Buxton.

She had already experienced racism. During her work experience in Manchester, she was left frustrated “because white students would be allowed to see more and get more important things to do. I was told ‘you are not ready for that’. I was enthusiastic but I was treated more like a health care assistant.”

The upland areas of England have few BAME residents. As a community nurse, Newbold would often need to show shocked home patients her badge to prove she had come to check their blood pressure or administer injections, despite wearing her uniform.

Overlooked for promotion

“I would say ‘Is there a problem?’ and people would reply ‘I did not realise you were coloured’ and ‘Sorry, I did not mean anything, I am just older.’”

Some of her white work colleagues expressed more extreme attitudes. “Some were obsessed that I was the only black person in my village and they’d say this to patients. One nurse would introduce me as such. To fit in you pretend to go along with it.”

Newbold’s experiences of racism led to her suffering mental health problems.  She started to worry she was going to be a burden on her son’s life because of her race. She dreaded the start of each new school year for fear that she might come into contact with the parents of new pupils.

After many years of unsuccessfully trying to cope, she was signed off sick from work for 18 months. Now she has been able to return to work but said: “I have still not got over some of my fears.”

She does though enjoy working as an immunisation nurse in schools.

“Children don’t judge you by your skin colour and many of those I meet are themselves BAME,” she said. “But I am aware, because they say so, that some white colleagues find it uncomfortable visiting schools where most pupils are BAME.”

Newbold is a member of the Royal College of Nursing, whose North West regional director is Estaphanie Dunn, a Black nurse who has worked across the country since leaving school in the 1970s,as a midwife, health visitor and in senior management.

She said she was “blessed” as she got to where she wanted to be professionally but in her RCN role she knows that is not the case for most BAME nursing staff.

“I have sought to tackle many of the issues that feature in Exposed, including how BAME staff are often overlooked for promotion for years and even witness staff they have trained being promoted over them.”

Speaking out

In the film, Roseline, 19 years in health care, reveals how during the pandemic some accident and emergency departments adopted red and green zones, with the former being more dangerous to work in.

“African nurses were placed in red zones. I call that apartheid,” said filmmaker Ken Fero of Migrant Media, a collective of filmmakers, who collaborated with Sheffield Hallam University to produce Exposed, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Fero said he was frustrated that mainstream television broadcasters refuse to show the film.

Dunn said: “Every time I saw a photograph of a nursing staff member who had died because of Covid they were Black or brown or a migrant worker. This naturally concerned members of these groups – and others – who felt they were being deployed in higher risk areas, were not being given proper personal protective equipment and were refused proper risk assessments. I received many members’ complaints.”

In 2020 a British Medical Association survey revealed that although 21 per cent of all staff are BAME, 63 per cent of healthcare workers who had died were BAME. The government will not release current data.

“Those in Exposed are starting a petition to force them to do so,” said Fero, adding that it could be dangerous for nurses to speak out about mistreatment at work.

“We saw nurses being supported, people clapped for them, but look how all of them, not just black nurses, have been treated. They can’t meet the cost of living increases.”

Newbold said: “Appearing in Exposed took me on a journey that, combined with Black Lives Matter campaigning around the death of George Floyd, has led to me learning about Black history. It helped me make contact with many amazing people in nursing and health care.

“I took an opportunity denied to our ancestors to try and improve things for those following us into nursing. Maybe others will now speak up.”

When the film premiered in London invitations were posted across the South East to all chief nurses, who have the power to change workplace practices. None turned up. Colleagues of Newbold, who has welcomed correspondence from a senior member of her trust urging her to continue speaking up, have not watched the film.

Dunn said: “I have sought to highlight for many years the issues featured in Exposed. I try and get into spaces where I can make a difference, raise what I have witnessed and stand up for people who have had the worst of racism. Anyone needing help to tackle racism should make contact.”

View Exposed at nursingnarratives.com/exposed

Interact: Responses to Racism in the NHS documented

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.