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My Experience as a Black RDN in a White Dominated Field

Jasmine Westbrooks, MS, RD,LDN, shares her journey toward becoming an RDN and her experiences in dietetics as a person of color.

"Be honest and truthful with yourself about how you view other cultures and people who do not look like you. Be aware of your own biases and stereotypes. Most importantly, be uncomfortable."

Jasmine Westbrooks

Author's portrait
By Jasmine, MS, RD, LDN

If you are reading this, you are choosing to hear about my experiences as a dietitian of color and how important it is to have representation from all walks of life in the nutrition and dietetics field.

I first learned about the role of a registered dietitian nutritionist because of the preventative health conditions dominating my family's quality of life and longevity and decided I wanted to become one. I also knew that many of my family members experienced health care disparities and racial injustices because they are Black and lived in a low-socioeconomic area where there was a lack of quality health care. These types of experiences also inspired me to become the co-founder of EatWell Exchange, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that specializes in nutrition education and accessibility of healthful foods in low-socioeconomic communities with a focus on culture.

Representation matters!

Only 2.9 percent of all dietitians are African American. So many times, patients and clients are told to eat unfamiliar foods that are not part of their culture or upbringing. When dietitians do this, the patient or client may leave the office and not follow the recommendations. And if that happens, when the patient or client returns for a follow-up, it may appear that the goal is not met and unfortunately this might cause the dietitian to condemn them as being noncompliant.

Dietitians need to understand that they must meet patients and clients where they are and eliminate food and body shaming. This helps to build rapport and trust with the patient or client, allowing yourself cultural sensitivity and awareness. Allow room for cultural sensitivity and awareness. Please understand that you can never become culturally competent if you do not share the same values and practices of someone with a different upbringing and culture, and that is OK!

If dietitians are not culturally sensitive, the nutrition information will never reach the communities and ethnic groups that need it the most, which means hope and trust in dietitians will be lost. It also is important to have a diverse group of dietitians so patients and clients can learn information from someone that looks like them and someone who understands different barriers that affect attitudes or motivations to eat healthfully.

My Experience as an RDN

I have experienced the highs and lows of becoming a dietitian and earning my credentials as a dietitian of color. I have been the recipient of ignorant racial comments and statements from other dietitians and health care professionals for more than five years:

  1. Starting with my undergraduate experience, when dietetics students called the Black students in our classes a "gang" because we stuck together to support each other when no one would socialize with us.
  2. Then there are microaggressive, small offensive comments. For example, while I was holding a physician's white grandson and socializing with a group of professionals, my manager says to me "I bet that white baby is wondering why this black girl is holding me". Later I had to explain to my manager that her comments are unacceptable and would not be tolerated.
  3. My current full-time job includes teaching diabetes classes in a rural city that is predominately white. I cannot count on my fingers the type of comments said towards me that includes an expression of surprise, doubting my ability to educate a class and educate them about diabetes. A few comments that come to mind include "you speak too loud" or "you sound funny" or the expression on their face as I walk into the lobby and they are beyond shocked to see that I am African American during our first introduction.

How do we fix both the health disparities, lack of Black dietitians and the horrible microaggressive racial attitudes we experience in our field every day?

Be honest and truthful with yourself about how you view other cultures and people who do not look like you. Be aware of your own biases and stereotypes. Most importantly, be uncomfortable. Do not sweep this under the rug and make it into something that it is not just so you can feel comfortable.

Allow yourself to be culturally sensitive and experience cultural humility. Ask a Black dietitian if they are truly OK, but also do your own research and be proactive in making the change within yourself and within Black communities. Be aware that unless you are Black in this country you will never fully relate to our experiences in the nutrition field and in society.

This content originally appeared in Food & Nutrition Magazine®.

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