1. Adeniran, Rita K. DrNP, RN, NEA-BC, FNAP, FAAN

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Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system. - -Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


I emigrated from Nigeria in 1989 to pursue the American dream and to practice nursing. I never expected undue advantages, nor suppression by anyone, as I pursued my goals. However, within the contexts of my African American heritage and my stigmatized accent, some of my fellow Americans ignored my drive and deep work ethic, seeming to perceive me as an inferior intruder and possibly a threat. Despite many positive experiences, I confronted undue barriers in my educational pursuits, nursing practice, and everyday living. I was often one of a few or the only African American student in most of my classes. I struggled for acceptance. I remain puzzled as to why faculty and peers had lower expectations of my ability, and I noticed how flabbergasted they become at the realization that they were wrong to have equated my intelligence with my skin color and/or accent. I believe that there is nothing like a story to teach a lesson or make a point. I offer my own stories in the hope that they will sensitize readers to their own implicit biases and to racist beliefs.



After earning my nursing license, I enrolled in an RN-BSN completion program where, in my very first English course, I was arbitrarily assigned a final grade of D. The D grade made no sense, given that I received better than average grades in every assignment before the final paper. And, although the final paper carried significant weight, the math did not add up to D. When I asked the professor where I went wrong, she replied, "I do not believe that you wrote the final paper based on your accent, and the fact that you do not speak fluent English." I was outraged by this biased grading strategy and the suggestion that I had cheated. I requested to meet with the College Dean, who finally agreed to speak with me, only by phone. I pled my case; yet, the Dean would not render an immediate decision. The Dean finally called and asked about my willingness to write another final English paper in a monitored environment. I agreed to this arrangement, disappointed to discover that I earned a C grade for the course with no feedback on the final paper. I accepted the C grade, left the school, and transferred to another university, where I earned my BSN in Nursing. I was quickly confronted with similar challenges in the new university; however, there was a difference. I had an open line of communication with the RN-BSN program director, who helped me navigate some of the inherent challenges associated with "someone like me" seeking to acquire a baccalaureate degree in nursing.



Despite the obstacles to advancing my education, I kept at it and earned a doctorate in nursing. I am grateful to those who offered assistance along my journey. I want to share some insights and lessons learned from my reflection on this specific experience to raise awareness and hopefully diminish implicit biases and discrimination in higher educational settings.


Hostile environments

Racism, discrimination, and biases are characteristics of hostile environments that take a significant toll on individuals, lead to helplessness, and impede progress. Anderson,1 in an article in Inside Higher Education, captured the sentiment of my experience in the statement: "Black students continuously experience, fight against, and bear emotional scars from racism." I acutely felt the pressure placed on me by the professor who arbitrarily assigned me a "D" grade. I know that it would be impossible to flourish in a biased learning environment, so I exited the university. However, before leaving, I asserted my rights by questioning the professor's grading rationale and petitioning the College Dean. In retrospect, I am happy that I proved myself by rewriting the paper in a monitored environment. In hindsight, I wish that I had dared to ask the University President to investigate the policies and practices that determined my experience so that the future treatment of students like me improves.


Implicit bias

Research suggests that educators' racial beliefs and biases largely reflect those held within the broader society.2 It is well documented that implicit biases and systemic racism are a part of American history and contemporary times. One strategy to mitigate implicit biases and assist higher education professors to achieve their full potential when educating students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds is for them to engage in education and training to reduce implicit bias and racist tendencies. I may have been treated fairly had the professor, in my case, attended such training.


Anti-racist ideals

Higher education institutions (HEIs) must embrace anti-racist philosophy to ensure that students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, who often experience discrimination, bias, and exclusion, are supported to succeed. HEIs should also establish a comprehensive, cohesive, and systematic approach to dismantle the pervasive system of racism that holds a tight grip on perpetuating inequalities. A sign of seriousness for HEIs may begin with awareness and the willingness to look deeper and accept responsibility for participating in systemic racism. HEIs can publicly commit to change, consistently and openly denouncing all forms of hate, discrimination, and racist ideologies.



While my educational journey was riddled with many challenges because of my African American heritage, I persevered and overcame the adversities that stemmed from racism, discrimination, and implicit biases with the help and encouragement of my mentors. I remain a proud American today and a teacher of nursing students, committed to contributing to the quest for equality in nursing education and practice.




1. Anderson G. The emotional toll of racism. Inside Higher Education. October 23, 2020. Accessed December 12, 2020. [Context Link]


2. Starck J, Riddle T, Sinclair S, Warikoo N. Teachers are people too: examining the racial bias of teachers compared to other American adults. Educ Res. 2020;49:0013189X2091275. doi:10.3102/0013189X20912758. [Context Link]