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Racism in the NHS: heartfelt plea by veteran nurse

Comments by retired nurse Zeba Arif, who ran cultural awareness courses, come as nursing and health organisations endorse ‘manifesto for change’
Picture of Zeba Arif, a retired forensic psychiatric nurse

Comments by retired nurse Zeba Arif, who ran cultural awareness courses, come as nursing and health organisations endorse ‘manifesto for change’

As new research reveals that more than a third of healthcare workers who experienced racism have left their jobs, one retired nurse recalls the ‘disturbing and horrible’ racism she encountered from patients and colleagues.

Zeba Arif, a retired forensic psychiatric nurse, started her career in the early 1990s at a London hospital and recalls being ‘singled out as a brown face.’

‘At first it was horrible. I was singled out as a brown

Comments by retired nurse Zeba Arif, who ran cultural awareness courses, come as nursing and health organisations endorse ‘manifesto for change’

Picture of Zeba Arif, a retired forensic psychiatric nurse
Zeba Arif Picture: John Houlihan

As new research reveals that more than a third of healthcare workers who experienced racism have left their jobs, one retired nurse recalls the ‘disturbing and horrible’ racism she encountered from patients and colleagues.

Zeba Arif, a retired forensic psychiatric nurse, started her career in the early 1990s at a London hospital and recalls being ‘singled out as a brown face.’

‘At first it was horrible. I was singled out as a brown face. People used to ask me if I went to school on a camel. They questioned my ability to speak English,’ she told Nursing Standard.

Ms Arif started her training in her 30s and was the only Pakistani on the course and also the only mature student. ‘I wouldn’t have been human if I didn’t feel demoralised, degraded and humiliated sometimes,’ she said.

Research exposed racism in the NHS that led to black and brown nurses being put at greater risk

Earlier this month Sheffield Hallam University published a Nursing Narratives report showing ‘systemic and shocking’ levels of racism in the NHS. The research, involving more than 350 nurses, midwives and other healthcare staff, showed 59% had experienced racism during their working lives that affected their ability to work, with a third leaving their posts.

Personal accounts in the Nursing Narratives research exposed racism in the NHS that led to black and brown nurses being put at greater risk than their white colleagues due to the wards they worked on, personal protective equipment provided, training received, their workload and shift patterns, and support from managers.

Research prompts ‘manifesto for change’

The Nursing Narratives research prompted a ‘manifesto for change’ endorsed by 22 nursing, midwifery and wider health organisations. It recommends:

  • Stop putting black and brown staff in danger of death and psychological harm
  • Create clear and real consequences for racist actions, including dismissal and legal action
  • Accountability and penalties for trusts that do not comply with a zero tolerance to racism policy
  • End the exploitation of black and brown staff – delegate work equitably
  • Build a more compassionate NHS with respect and equality for black and brown healthcare staff

But Ms Arif recalls that it was not only staff who had to endure discrimination and racist comments, but often patients too. ‘I spoke up for ethnic minority patients. Sometimes they would be praying and a nurse would barge in and slam their hand on their shoulder and say they needed to speak to them,’ she said.

‘There were comments about their “smelly food” and how they wouldn’t make eye contact. There was no understanding of culture. The racism was bad, obvious and, in a way, it was disturbing.’

Last month a review by the NHS Race and Health Observatory found international nurses are still encountering ‘overt and covert racism’ in the NHS, 30 years on from Ms Arif’s experiences.

Ms Arif, who retired in 2011, said that over the years things improved for her when she became an RCN rep, which finally gave her ‘a voice and clout.’

After she qualified she began running cultural awareness courses at her hospital. She would teach other nurses about the cultures and religions of patients including Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, and invite local spiritual leaders to give talks.

She says that with international nursing recruitment soaring it is more important than ever to tackle racism in the NHS.


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