Culture Shock

Culture Shock - Food & Nutrition Magazine - Stone Soup
Photo Courtesy of Deidra Nelson

Being a minority in any field definitely comes with struggles. However, Black, Indigenous and people of color have always been able to adapt and, historically, succeed in the face of discrimination and injustice.

Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., I was never a minority in academic classes or social circles in the schools I attended or neighborhoods I lived in. I also had a diverse group of teachers and coaches. Although I was aware that leaving the city for college would be a major change and expose me to different cultures, I was excited to learn about nutrition and the world away from home.Culture Shock -

Attending a predominantly white institution unfortunately allowed me to experience things firsthand that I had only read about in history books. I was in a small English class and one of my classmates stated they had never seen a Black person in “real life” until they came to college. Talk about shocking.

Considering this, it’s no surprise that being a student (especially at this particular university) during the election of the nation’s first Black president came with some disheartening circumstances. There were students on campus who had probably never been taught Black history or were simply racist. The blatant racism my friends and I experienced during that time was disgusting. There were pictures of monkeys with Barack Obama’s name hanging on dorm rooms and an incident a couple of years later during which students vandalized the Black Culture Center by covering the grass with cotton balls in reference to slaves picking cotton. There was actual discussion among white students negating the need for a Black Culture Center stating, “there’s no White Culture Center.”

Even with these things, I went to class and was required to perform just as well as other students. Despite the mentally taxing racist antics surrounding me, I showed up. As a BIPOC student, I didn’t get to have excuses as to why I couldn’t perform. Doing so would evoke the stereotype that Black people are lazy and always looking for a handout. And whether we have to or not, it always feels like we are representing all Blacks when it’s just us in the room. Can you imagine how exhausting that is? To be the spokesperson for an entire race?

When I applied for the coordinated program during undergrad, I was told my GPA was too low and that I could apply again next year — but they could not guarantee I’d be selected. I was close friends with a white student who got into the program, and she confessed that she had the same GPA as me. I never want to be given anything because of my race, but I would like to be treated fairly. Instead of being given the necessary tools to improve my chances of acceptance, I felt as if I was told something to get me out the door.

After transferring schools, I made many friends in my major and I even found a mentor, Patricia Prince-Griffin, who helped me tremendously. I definitely know this happened for a reason; I was in the perfect place to complete my degree and go on to my internship. I was fortunate to have great faculty at this university who provided ample support and were very encouraging and helpful. I had a mostly positive internship experience as well. I know this is not always the case, based on discussions with other people of color who recently completed internships, so I am very grateful. However, I shouldn’t have to be one of the lucky ones. Bullying, gaslighting and undervaluing Black students is unacceptable.

Another incident occurred in graduate school when a professor stated that Black men have a higher rate of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, because they don’t believe in wearing condoms. Instead of diving into the legitimate reasons — socioeconomic issues, access to health care, overall systemic racism — she chose to make an offensive remark about an entire race of men. As a student, it was very awkward to be put in these types of situations by someone you are supposed to be learning from. Not only was I angry, I was embarrassed that everyone in class now thinks the reason Black men have higher rates of HIV is due to an assumed condom preference. I often reflect on this and regret not speaking up because saying something could have made a student after me have a better experience. However, it shouldn’t only be the responsibility of a Black student — everyone should have been offended by that statement.

It is vital that professors and preceptors are aware of their own implicit bias and how things can be perceived as or are racist. Representation is important and, unfortunately, there are few BIPOC RDNs and even fewer professors, DPD directors and internship directors. As students, we receive most of our education from people we don’t naturally identify with.

I believe it is equally important for others to have similar experiences for personal and professional growth. Most of the time, we serve clients and patients that come from different backgrounds than we do. Similar to how ethics is a required competency for RDNs, cultural competencies also should be required for all RDNs. I hope that during these times, people will gain an understanding of systemic issues that affect their clients or patients, students and colleagues so that the profession, and the world, can take a step in the right direction.

The team behind Food & Nutrition Magazine® aims to amplify the voices of people of color and other underrepresented individuals in nutrition and dietetics and highlight the experiences of RDNs, NDTRs, dietetic interns and nutrition and dietetics students. Our goal is not only to stand in solidarity, but also help inform our readers and increase awareness about the importance of diversity in the field of nutrition and dietetics. We know it’s not enough, but we hope it’s a step in the right direction that will support meaningful conversations and a positive change in the profession. 

Deidra Nelson on Instagram
Deidra Nelson
Deidra Nelson, MS, RDN, LDN, is a community dietitian based in Memphis. Her nutrition philosophy focuses on finding the good in everything you eat. Follow her on Instagram and read her blog at