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Conference Speaker Blog: When Racial Equity Approaches Are Rooted in Racism

Thursday, October 11, 2018   (0 Comments)
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When Racial Equity Approaches Are Rooted in Racism

In recent months, much has been written and said about capacity building or improving outcomes through a “racial equity lens”. Noticeably absent from these conversations is an examination of the “lens” we use the other 99% of the time. Without a thorough and brutally honest examination our society’s “default” or “dominant” lens, we risk nesting racial equity work in the very ideologies and systems that we seek to deconstruct. 


“Listen, I’m here. I came here to listen and learn. I came because I care about these issues. I understand where people are coming from and I’m doing my best. But I didn’t come here to be judged and I certainly didn’t come here to be blamed for things I didn’t do.”


This comment was made by a white man who attended an anti-racism training in Brooklyn, NY several years ago. It was a diverse and multi-racial group of people from all over the greater NYC area, interested in learning more about racism and ways that racism can be dismantled. And for the most part, the three-day training felt like a “shared” experience. Even in moments of emotional intensity, particularly when I and other people of color shared our personal and daily experiences with racism, there was an air of solidarity and allyship as we all “leaned in” together.


On the second day, things changed. During an activity when the facilitators were providing a historical analysis of institutional racism, an older black woman shared an anecdote of how the very space we were meeting in, a private elementary school for predominantly affluent white children, used to be a neighborhood community center. She talked about growing up in this community center, what she learned, and the relationships she built. She also shared her experiences of being pushed out of this community by gentrification and the devastation she and others felt when the community center was ultimately shuttered. Though she didn’t direct her comments at anyone in particular, her words forced us to locate ourselves and the various roles we play in maintaining and perpetuating racism. At this moment, our bubble had burst. Suddenly, many participants, mostly white, went from leaning in to assuming a more defensive posture. It was as if an unspoken agreement or understanding had been broken. The man’s comments followed soon thereafter.


I’ve found this to be a common experience in both my personal and professional lives. And in many ways, it captures the challenge and complexity of engaging in deep and authentic racial equity work. Due to various reasons, we have more people than ever interested and willing to talk about and address issues of race. But willingness is not readiness. The challenge is not about questioning the veracity of people’s beliefs and motives. Rather, the challenge is grounded in our increasing comfort in making RACE the topic, without addressing the RACIST ways we approach it.


The process of unpacking, decoding, and deconstructing racism is a long and hard journey that requires risk, discomfort, honesty and an exacting level of self- and organizational awareness. We should acknowledge and embrace it. We should also prepare for it. What we shouldn’t do, is sanitize it in the name of safety and accessibility. To that end, we wanted to identify and describe specific ways that racist and white-centered ideologies can influence or dictate the “how” in racial equity.  


Prioritizing Safety Over Trust. Conversations about race are deeply personal, elicit a wide range of powerful and intense emotions, and for many, can and will cause moments of great discomfort. Knowing this, we began our journey focused on building deep and authentic relationships with each other, not establishing agreements for safety. We focused on ways to build the relational capital and trust needed to speak openly and honestly and to navigate moments of risk and discomfort. Too many people and organizations spend their time crafting ways to establish “safety zones”, outlining what can and cannot be said, in an attempt to protect feelings. While the notion of safety is not problematic on its own, in racial equity conversations, it often functions as a way to cater to “white fragility”. These efforts also ignore whose safety is often prioritized over others and at what cost. In this case, deep and authentic relationships are both the vehicle for engaging in a racial equity process and a result of it. 


Equating Diversity With Equity. One of the most challenging aspects of racial equity work is accepting that everyone enters and exits according to their own personality and racial identity, and as a result, navigate issues of voice, personal and institutional power differently. Bringing different types of people together to engage in difficult conversations is an important part of the process. Engaging in deep conversation does not, however, dismantle white privilege. And often, in aiming for a kumbaya-like experience, gathering a “diverse” set of faces is often perceived as the goal, not the start. In this way, diversity is used as a tool to embrace change while preserving the status quo.


Intellectualizing Over Living the Experience. There are many people who are well read, informed, and can speak intelligently and fluently on issues of race and racism. These people are often strong advocates of anti-racist #movements and are the first to volunteer and name the multitude of ways they are “privileged”. Journeys that cater to this intellectualized perspective often prioritize scholarly research and the voice of “experts”, regardless of their proximity to racism, over the experiences of those who live with it every day. It also de-legitimizes and limits the role and significance of peoples’ emotions and intense reactions to racism. Furthermore, the process of deconstructing racism requires attentiveness to what is unspoken, attunement to self and others, and an awareness of your physical and emotional self, which are keys to the unleashing of our subconscious conditioning.


There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this work. However, understanding these issues is important as people and organizations consider engaging in racial equity work, and more specifically, what they hope to accomplish as a result. To hear one organization’s journey and struggle in navigating these issues, please attend “Leaning In: An Organization's Journey Towards a Liberation Zone” on October 12, from 9:15-10:45 am.  


Albert Kim, Yaniyah Pearson, Stacey Alicea