Racisim and White FragilityArticle by Maynard Brusman, August 3, 2020
Racism and Oppression
A 2017 analysis of racial discrimination revealed no improvement in hiring over time. With all the diversity training and education we have received, how can this be?
To understand the collective dimensions of racism, and how different groups of colors get set-up differently, is a life-long process. Different groups have different experiences, and it’s important to learn those histories.
All people who are not perceived as white continue to experience racism. They experience it in shared ways, and in ways that are unique to their group, and their position to whiteness. However, there is something profoundly anti-black in our culture. It cuts across all groups, and is a form of state sanctioned discrimination.
You see, racism isn’t just about being racist. And it’s not something that just bad people do. Racism is a system of oppression—intentionally or not. And it hurts everyone.
Today, most organizations offer diversity training. But we need to move beyond this. We need to learn how to listen better, learn better, and take better action to correct the systems that support racism. Ultimately, this will strengthen our businesses, those we serve, and our entire society. But most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. Black lives matter.
Key Terms for Open Discussions
In her book, White Fragility, (Beacon Press, 2018), Dr. Robin DiAngelo shares her research and experiences regarding racism, and how white people often inadvertently maintain racial inequality. Instead, we can learn to identify unproductive responses and engage in open discussions where we really listen and learn. Then, we can take action.
Talking about any issue requires an understanding and agreement on key terms:
Racism: a system of oppression, not an event.
Racist: the traditional definition is an individual who consciously does not like people based on race, and is intentionally mean to them. The three key words are: individual, consciously, and intentionally. This definition actually protects the system of racism. It makes it virtually impossible to talk to the average white person about the inevitable absorption of a racist world view that we get from living in a culture in which it is infused and embedded across all its institutions. This definition is the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. When this is your definition, and someone suggests you may have said or done something racist, the response is to defend your moral character.
White fragility: what surfaces when any of the above is acknowledged or questioned.
Underlying Beliefs and Myths of Racism
Racism is built on a foundation of underlying beliefs, assumptions, and myths, many of which are unrecognized, let alone understood. (And I don’t have to understand it for it to be valid.)
- Nice people cannot also act in racist ways.
- Racism can only be conscious and intentional; unaware good intentions cancels it out.
- White people who experience oppression/have suffered cannot act in racist ways.
- My race has no bearing on my perspective on the matter.
- I have proximity to people of color (POC), therefore I am free of racism.
- I have no proximity to POC, therefore I am racially innocent.
- My learning is finished/I know all I need to know.
The Real Truth
- The racial status quo is maintained by white comfort; change will be uncomfortable.
- Comfort is not the same as safety; white people are safe in discussions about racism.
- Feedback on white racism is difficult to give; feedback from POC is a gift and indicates trust.
- Feelings of guilt are normal, and the antidote is action.
- It takes courage to break with white solidarity; support those that do.
- Interrupting racism is more important than a leader’s feelings, ego, or self-image. Humility is key. Expect to grapple as you grow.
When a leader is willing to listen, reflect, and learn, change is possible.
How Your Organization Supports Racism
Consider this: most people grow up in segregation. They live their entire life in a segregated neighborhood or community and never have any consistent, ongoing, authentic relationship with people of a different color. For white people, the message is that there is no inherent value in those from whom they are segregated: people of color have no value.
And yet, many white people believe they were taught that everyone is the same. However, this is not humanly possible: socialization does not work in this manner. And unfortunately, this miseducation carries into our adulthood, and in to our places of work.
The Pillars of Racism
- Individualism: an idea that each of us is unique, and outside of socialization.
- Universalism: an idea that we are all the same. Unfortunately, in the physical realm, universalism functions to take race and power off the table.
- White Supremacy: a system in which whiteness, and white people, are central and seen as inherently superior to people of color.
- Internalized superiority/Investment in the racial order: internalization of white supremacy and reliance on inequality as further proof, as well as individual and group social security, prosperity, and sustainability.
- Good/Bad Binary: binary opposition is the system of language (and/or thought) in which two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set-off against one another. This binary suggests that one can’t be a good person and be complicit in racism.
- Implicit Bias: an unconscious thought or preference for or against certain people or groups, which typically leads to outward (explicit) discrimination.
Counter Learned Socialization and Implicit Bias in Your Organization
As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, our society teaches racism. And, our institutions often support it. The best leaders examine their implicit bias, take action to mitigate their biases, and dismantle policies and systems that support inequity. The first step is to recognize our own learned socialization. Consider your own childhood:
- Was your neighborhood racially diverse? If not, why?
- Were you encouraged to visit different neighborhoods? What about neighborhoods where people of different (from you) races lived? Did you get to know anyone?
- What were the characteristics of a good school? What about a bad school?
- How frequently were you and your teachers of the same race?
If you haven’t already, complete the Implicit Association Test (IAT), also known as the Harvard Study of Bias (Project Implicit). The IAT measures our hidden attitudes and beliefs. You see, bias and racism rely on our racialization: the grouping of people based on perceived physical differences, most commonly, the color of their skin.
Counter Implicit Bias
Of course, becoming aware of our hidden bias is just the beginning. We need to take steps to counter implicit bias. One technique that works is visualization.
At the beginning of your day, visualize the tasks you must complete. Close your eyes, and picture those you might encounter for the first time. What do they look like? Notice if they are a man, woman, or non-binary. What is their skin color?
Now, picture an alternative. Open yourself to different possibilities, and normalize these: make it expected.
For white people, the immediate future requires us to accept that implicit bias exists. Then, we must be focused on what Black people are really facing. We must break our silence.
Break the Silence of Racism in Your Organization
White leaders face two common challenges in cross-racial discussions:
- The fear of making a mistake and losing face
- Certitude regarding racial perspectives (and negating open dialog that results in learning)
To address these challenges, DiAngelo has created a list of silence breakers for white people: statements or questions that promote curiosity, open dialog, and learning. Here are just a few examples:
- I’m really nervous/scared/uncomfortable to say this…
- It feels risky to say this and/but…
- I’m afraid I may offend someone, and please let know if I do …
- I just felt something shift in the room. I’m wondering if anyone else did.
- I’m still working through/processing this, but right now where I am at is…
Such “I” statements are helpful to keep the responsibility and accountability on the speaker. They also work well in a group situation, which allow leaders to model the behavior of authentic engagement.
Examine Your Accountability Practices
Leaders must also examine their personal and organizational accountability practices. For example:
- How do you engage and challenge yourself in a conscious, intentional, and ongoing understanding of your participation in racism?
- What anti-racism systems of support have you put in to place, for yourself, and groups within your organization?
- How frequently do you participate in feedback conversations with a person of color, who is not your friend or spouse?
Examine Your Hiring and Promotion Practices
Review all hiring and promotion practices for unintentional discrimination and disparities. This should be done by a diverse committee, and include three critical components:
- Collection of data: regardless of the size of your organization, you should be able to sort applicant, hiring, and employee promotion data for any disparities. If you don’t have a system in place, create one now.
- Analysis of your data: If you find any disparities, determine how and why.
- Correction of any flaws in your practices: create pre-determined, objective criteria for hiring and promotion. Review for concrete, objective indicators and outcomes to reduce standard stereotypes. This should include: structured resume review, interviews, and evaluations to assess individual contributions for promotion.
What Not to Do
While it’s imperative to have cross-racial discussions, it’s not up to people of color to carry the burden.
- Don’t ask your Black co-workers/colleagues/employees to point out specific racism to a group of white people.
- Don’t stop learning. For more information, check out this reading list for leaders, recommended by DiversityInc.com
In Health, Love and Happiness,
Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist & EQ Executive Coach and Mindful Leadership Consultant
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