The Nurses, Alexandra Robbins

In today’s review of The Nurses, by Alexander Robbins (author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities), we shall play a game of, Why Didn’t Someone Stop This White Lady?

The Nurses has a similar structure to Pledged, in which chapters following four individual nurses through their work days alternate with chapters that offer contextual information based in research and interviews. For instance, one chapter may address a specific nurse’s concern that her coworker is stealing narcotics from patients, and the next will discuss narcotics addictions in the nursing profession.

The Nurses

I love reading about jobs that are not my job, and I found Pledged horrifying and interesting when I read it a few years back, so believe me when I say that I was primed to enjoy The Nurses. It is just that all the racism made it difficult.

Let’s compare and contrast two (of the very few) racial interactions in this book, so you can be horrified along with me. That’ll be fun, right? This one’s between Juliette, a white lady here serving as the charge nurse for her unit, and her Dominican tech, Lucy.

Lucy ignored her, as if she didn’t understand; she seemed to have selective comprehension of the English language. She did this frequently to Juliette, even though techs were supposed to follow charge nurses’ instructions.

Juliette exploded, upset about Lucy’s treatment of the patient. “Oh, will someone just say it to her in a language she understands?” She regretted the words as she said them. . .

For the rest of the day, Lucy ignored Juliette even more blatantly than usual. “Where’d the patient go?” Juliette asked. “What room is that patient in?” Lucy wouldn’t look at her. If Lucy had a question, she asked another nurse, even though Juliette was charge.

The next day, when Juliette goes to tell her superior what happened, and her superior mentions that Lucy was upset by it, Juliette says “Oh, give me a break. Lucy was insubordinate before this escalated.”

Juliette bought an apology card and a box of chocolates from the gift shop. When she tried to apologize, Lucy refused to accept them.

“I don’t need a card,” Lucy said.

“I’m trying to say I’m sorry,” Juliette said, genuinely trying to make amends.

“What you did was wrong.”

“Yes, it was. I’m trying to apologize,” Juliette repeated, still conciliatory.

Lucy stood up and walked away. Juliette left the card and the chocolates on her computer.

Let’s sum up this interaction so far, shall we? A white charge nurse made a xenophobic remark to a Latina coworker under her direct supervision. She did not apologize the day of the incident, nor did she emphasize to Lucy or the staff that the remark was made in a moment of stressy anger and was not representative of her real opinion. When speaking about it to her supervisor, she downplayed her own behavior while tattling on Lucy for misbehaving. The author’s framing of the incident and its follow-up is heavily sympathetic to Juliette.

BUT WAIT. A few weeks later, Juliette’s at a continuing ed workshop and brings up this incident and its aftermath. “Lucy hasn’t spoken to me since,” she said.

“What Lucy was doing, before the incident and after you apologized, is a form of bullying that is common in nursing today,” the facilitator said. “Ignoring is a form of bullying because you’re blocking that person out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like somebody. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But you need to be cordial to and communicate with that person at work.”

Juliette felt helpless, but Priscilla[, her supervisor,] wouldn’t do anything about it. Priscilla was too afraid of confrontation to act like a manager and diffuse the situation. In Priscilla’s realm, bullies and slackers went unpunished, and staffers who did go beyond the call of duty weren’t recognized. Priscilla didn’t reprimand Juliette; in fact, she told Juliette she had been right about the patient and encouraged Juliette to be charge nurse more often.

Really. Because to me it seems like in Priscilla’s realm, open racism in a white superior not only goes unpunished, but garners an offer of career advancement. How did the editors at Workman let this get by them? That Robbins uses this story as a jumping-off point to talk about nurse-on-nurse bullying (casting Juliette as the victim) would be stunning if it weren’t so exhaustingly predictable.

And now for a counterpart to that story. If you’re interested. It’s about another nurse, Lara. Here’s some context about the racial makeup of Lara’s job at her hospital, and the position she occupies there.

Despite racial tensions, Lara, one of the few white nurses at the hospital, hadn’t landed in anyone’s crosshairs. Evidently someone had noticed that Lara seemed to get along with everyone, because in November, the ER director selected her as one of fifteen people to join a new hospital-wide committee.

Really. REALLY with this. The only possible explanation for the presence on a hospital-wide committee of one of the only white nurses at this institution is that she was just so exceptionally agreeable? Fucking really?

And then, a sample of some racial tensions:

Nurses knew when they were in Makayla’s assigned zone because they were knocked sideways by the overpowering smell of bleach. Apparently, someone had complained, because Makayla told the four other nurses, “And one of our latte nurses felt the need to write me up that I had wiped down the area to make sure it was clean.” The other nurses clucked sympathetically.

For the moment, Lara didn’t say anything because she was outnumbered. There were only three white nurses left in the ER. When the black nurses left, Lara called Makayla back. “Makayla, I have to talk to you,” Lara said, speaking slowly to think through how to avoid putting Makayla on the defensive. “I respect you as a nurse and I know that you work hard. But I have to tell you, your comment about latte coworkers is racist. It wasn’t cool and I was sitting right here. I’m surprised to hear a comment like that coming from you.”

Makayla balked. “Oh no no, oh my gosh, no. I call people my mocha sisters and my latte sisters, but it has nothing to do with color!”

Nevertheless, for the next month, Makayla went out of her way to be nice to Lara. Normally, she was the type of nurse who shopped online while other nurses ran around taking care of patients. Now she leaped up to help Lara, greeting her enthusiastically. Lara wasn’t going to waste energy resenting Makayla, so she let the incident slide.

Please note that again a woman of color is cast as lazy and unresponsive in her work, as compared to the conscientious white woman from whose point of view the story is being told. Where Juliette’s remark and its impact on the work environment, and on Lucy, were repeatedly downplayed, this second passage specifically identifies Makayla’s remark as “racist” and emphasizes Lara’s discomfort at being a racial minority among her coworkers.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Jenny, doesn’t the book elsewhere address the racial demographics of nursing and what it’s like to be a nurse of color in a heavily white-dominated field? That would help to alleviate my feeling that this author is letting racial bias color her depiction of these two incidents.” You will be shocked to hear that, no, it never does that, not even a little bit. Robbins mentions the social segregation between white and black nurses in this inner city hospital only in terms of its impact on the (white) point-of-view characters (Molly, Lara); we never hear from a single POC nurse about what it’s like to work at this hospital or how race and racism plays into the work life of a non-white nurse.

Oh, and can I interest you in a soupçon1 of rape denialism? (Skip down if that sort of thing upsets you.)

Then the [drunk teenage] girl changed her story. “Dad, I think when I was passed out, someone raped me,” the girl sniffled. . . . Everyone in the room except her parents knew the girl was lying.

Teen patients commonly said anything they could think of to avoid dealing with their parents’ reactions. Molly had treated dozens of teenage girls who made up the same story, and not one of them had been sexually assaulted. . . . Most patients didn’t realize that if police officers seriously considered somebody to be a sexual assault victim, they brought the patient to a hospital with a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) on staff, which [Molly’s hospital] did not have at present. . . . Therefore, ER nurses knew that if EMS or the police brought a patient through triage, they did not believe the individual had been sexually assaulted.

When the father went into the hallway to call the police himself, Molly turned to the girl. “If you really were raped, we will do everything we can to help you,” she said. “If it’s not true, we have a big problem. Someone will get arrested, go to jail, and possibly serve time just so you can get out of trouble for drinking. Now tell me, what’s worse: being grounded for something you did or someone going to jail for something he didn’t do?”

The girl retracts her story, and Robbins goes on to tell a hilarious story about a teenager who gets herself out of trouble by having a pretend religious awakening. Again, I cannot imagine how anyone who read this passage — particularly any women! — okayed it to go forward. It reads like something out of an exposé about the many ways our police, medical, and legal systems fail rape victims.

If I sound pissed off in this review, it’s because I’m so disappointed. At some point, a lady grows tired of discovering that books she intended to enjoy insist upon reproducing the same tired old rhetorical strategies to prop up the kyriarchy that she has seen a kajillion times before. A lady in those circumstances may be forgiven for shriek-reading passages of her book to her podcast partner whom she fortuitously happens to be visiting,2 then having a glass of wine and writing a furious post about it.

  1. if by “soupçon” you mean “great big old bucket”