Advice and development

Stamping out negative attitudes towards BME nursing students

Kathy Oxtoby talks to the RCN's Wendy Irwin about BME nursing students' experiences of racism, and where to get support if this is happening to you. 

Kathy Oxtoby talks to the RCN's Wendy Irwin about BME nursing students' experiences of racism, and where to get support if this is happening to you. 

RCN's Wendy Irwin says universities and healthcare organisations need to make
constructive use of people’s differences. Picture: iStock

Racism can be a major issue for black and minority ethnic (BME) nursing students, says RCN diversity and equalities coordinator Wendy Irwin.

Ms Irwin has received feedback from students who say they have experienced racism from colleagues and patients, and within their educational institution. 

Waste of talent 

Research has also highlighted how, on average, it takes BME students longer to acquire their first nursing role than their white counterparts. 

Ms Irwin says racism towards BME students can be ‘overt – where individuals are deliberately denied access to opportunities and experiences because of their race, or a patient may not want a BME nurse to treat them'. 

Or it can take more subtle forms, ‘such as when a BME nurse’s contribution to a meeting is discounted'. She says such attitudes are shocking. ‘It is particularly worrying that this could lead to a flagrant waste of talent, ability, and enthusiasm.’ 

Socialising, fitting in 

Cultural differences can also create barriers to relationships with colleagues. At a recent conference on supporting BME nurses, one of the issues raised was how students’ social lives often centred on pubs.

‘The image of university life in some places is hard drinking and lots of socialising,’ says Ms Irwin. ‘This can be challenging if it is not consistent with your cultural background, and can cause anxiety about “fitting in”.’ 

To help overcome these barriers and negative attitudes towards BME students, universities and healthcare organisations need to make ‘constructive use of people’s differences', says Ms Irwin. 

Valuing experiences 

‘Rather than seeing race as a “problem”, the experiences of people from different cultural backgrounds should be valued,’ she says. 

On an individual level, she urges people to think about their attitudes and behaviours towards BME nurses, and to question whether they are discriminatory. If so, look to change your behaviour. ‘The care we give to our patients is the same care we should give to all our colleagues,’ she says.

Nursing students can support each other by being ‘sensitive to the needs of others, irrespective of gender, religion, or beliefs,’ says Ms Irwin, and by considering what they can do to make sure BME students feel included. 


‘To get the best outcome for everybody, it is important to have empathy for each other. If you are doing a joint piece of work or a presentation, for example, check with your fellow students where they would like to prepare, rather than assuming a meeting in the pub,’ she says. 

‘People shouldn’t believe BME students are somehow different,’ she adds. ‘We need to understand that all our different cultures are just as complex and curious, and make sure each of those cultures is seen as significant, valued, and important.’

What to do if you are experiencing racial discrimination  

  • RCN members should contact the college, whick can offer advice and support. Go to or call: 0345 772 6100. You can also speak to your local RCN student information officer.
  • Go to your university lecturer or practice mentor. ‘They are committed to getting the best for students and will want to know about any issues,’ says Ms Irwin. 
  • Draw up a list of people who are there to support you, including friends and family. ‘It can be easy to forget who is there for you in times of trouble,’ says Ms Irwin.  


Kathy Oxtoby is a freelance journalist 

This article is for subscribers only