Why Are Organizations Failing To Fight Racism?

  • 12 mins read

How is your organization fighting racism?

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?

Understanding the collective dimensions of racism and how different groups of color get set up differently is a lifelong process. Different groups have different experiences, so learning those histories is important.

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 on 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 (DEI) 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. When our assumptions about race are challenged, our reactions are often counterproductive. Instead, we can learn to identify these 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:

Institutional Power: the ability to disseminate your worldview to everyone, and to shape how they see themselves, how they see you, and how they see themselves in relationship to you.

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 keywords are: individual, consciously, and intentional. 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 worldview 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.

Systemic racism: the collective racial prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control. It is embedded in media, family, religion, education, language, economics, and criminal justice. Systemic racism is embedded in cultural definitions of what is normal, real, correct, beautiful, and valuable.

White fragility: what surfaces when any of the above is acknowledged or questioned.

White fragility is the inability to tolerate racial stress. Racial stress is triggered when our positions, perspectives, or advantages are challenged. White fragility functions to block the challenge and regain white racial equilibrium. It is not a weakness per se; it is a powerful means of everyday white racial control as it leverages historical and institutional power to maintain positions. – Dr. Robin DiAngelo

Underlying Beliefs and Myths of Racism

Unfortunately, part of being raised as a white person in our society is to be functionally illiterate when it comes to racism. It’s not about being good or bad, nice or mean. According to DiAngelo, the idea that racism is a conscious bias held by mean people is the most effective adaption of racism.

In truth, racism is a system of oppression; it is a complex, multi-layered system infused in everything, everywhere, and probably in your organization, too. Even the best leaders can be blind to it.

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.)

Racism Myths

▶ Nice people cannot also act in racist ways.

▶ Racism can only be conscious and intentional; unaware good intentions cancel 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, and I know all I need to know.

Other beliefs that support racism:

▶ As a white person, I will be the judge of whether racism has occurred.

▶ I am qualified to determine whether the experiences of POC are legitimate.

▶ If I don’t understand it, it isn’t legitimate.

▶ As a white person, I know the best way to challenge racism.

▶ I have no accountability to POC, yet I am confident that I am free of racism.

▶ White people are objective on racism.

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.

Change is possible when a leader is willing to listen, reflect, and learn.

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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 this way. And unfortunately, this miseducation carries into our adulthood and our places of work.

The Pillars of Racism

1️⃣ Individualism: an idea that we are unique and outside of socialization. The belief that society exists for the benefit of individual people, who must not be constrained by government interventions or made subordinate to collective interests, is often equated with the ideology, moral stance, political philosophy, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of an individual.

2️⃣ Universalism: an idea that we are all the same. Unfortunately, in the physical realm, universalism functions to take race and power off the table. It denies the fundamentally different experiences of persons of color and that racism exists. While race isn’t real, the very superficial signifiers that allow us to categorize people are very real, and there are consequences. An insistence that we are all the same doesn’t allow us to engage with this social reality.

3️⃣ White Supremacy: a system in which whiteness and white people are central and seen as inherently superior to people of color. It is (typically) not a choice—we are born into it—but we are responsible for changing it because the default of our society is the reproduction of racism. It is built into every system in every institution. If we live our lives and carry on in the most comfortable ways for us, we will necessarily reproduce it. There is no neutral place. Inaction is a form of action.

4️⃣ 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. Society reinforces the message, “it is better to be white.”

5️⃣ 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. When we (consciously or unconsciously) identify people or groups of people as good or bad, we engage in a divide-and-conquer strategy. One of the most effective adaptations of racism since the Civil Rights Era is the idea that a racist is a bad person, and if you’re not racist, you’re a good person. This binary is the number one construct that keeps racism in place today and makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism. Our defensiveness comes from the good/bad binary; we hear, “you are a bad person.” This binary suggests that one can’t be a good person and be complicit in racism. However, racism is a system that we are all a part of.

6️⃣ Implicit Bias: an unconscious thought or preference for or against certain people or groups, typically leading to outward (explicit) discrimination. DiversityInc’s CEO Carolynn Johnson says it is the most insidious problem affecting workplaces worldwide.

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 biases, take action to mitigate their biases, and dismantle policies and systems that support inequity. Oftentimes, the first step is to recognize our own learned socialization.

Learned Socialization

Consider your own childhood:

🗨 Was your neighborhood racially diverse? If not, why?

🗨 Where did people of different (from you) races live?

🗨 What was their neighborhood like? How do you/did you know this?

🗨 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?

🗨 Was your school/district a priority or concern for your parents? If so, why?

🗨 Were all classes (advanced to special needs) equally racially integrated? If not, why not?

🗨 How frequently were you and your teachers of the same race?

🗨 Reflecting on your entire life, how often have you been to a wedding that was virtually all white? What about a funeral?

🗨 What are some of the ways your race has shaped your life?

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 biases is just the beginning. We need to take steps to counter implicit bias. One effective technique 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)

DiAngelo has created a list of Silence Breakers for white people to address these challenges: 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…and/but…

🗨 It feels risky to say this and/but…

🗨 I’m afraid I may offend someone, and please let me know if I do, but…

🗨 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 help keep the speaker responsible and accountable. They also work well in a group situation, allowing leaders to model 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 support systems have you implemented for yourself and groups within your organization?

▶ How frequently do you participate in feedback conversations with someone 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.

Correct 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 reviews, 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

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