“Curiosity is one of the most valuable characteristics one can possess. When coupled with fearlessness and determination, that’s freedom.”
Countering racism involves a great deal of unknown as well as some issues that are difficult to pin down. Here are a bunch of frequently asked questions in five categories:
There will always be questions, but not always evident answers. Don’t let unanswered questions stop you from acting. We “learn the way” in countering racism and the journey is about confronting the questions and finding answers.
“Curiosity is one of the most valuable characteristics one can possess. When coupled with fearlessness and determination, that’s freedom.”
Basically, racial bias is a belief – a conscious or unconscious prejudice (pre-judging). Racism is what happens when that belief translates into action.
Racial bias is the belief that inherent differences among racial groups determine individual and cultural achievement. It involves the belief that one’s own race is superior to, and has the right to dominate, other groups.
Those beliefs then show up in individual behavior (personal racism) and are built into our organizations and communities (systemic or structural racism).
There is a difference, but the terms are often used interchangeably. The terms are also defined a bit differently in different sources. One useful difference is the following:
They can also be seen defining organizations and institutions, often called institutional racism. And – structural racism also develops and supports personal racism.
One way to look at it is that the different systems support racism – and the elements of structural racism support the systems. Most of the work to counter racism will focus on structural racism in order to bring about the changes that will combine to change the various systems. That will also make it much easier to counter personal racism.
Personal racism is based on the beliefs, attitudes and actions of an individual that support racism – whether conscious or unconscious. Personal racism is reinforced by systemic or structural racism and, in turn, maintains racist systems and structures.
White privilege is a set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble those who dominate the power positions in our institutions. It is greater access to power and resources as well as supporting our daily quality of life. It’s a built-in advantage for White people because we are White.
Having White privilege is not an option. We didn’t ask for it. It’s simple – We can’t not get the privileges and we can’t just give them away.
Most of us go through life unaware of being white or that it matters. Privilege is hard to see for those of us who were born with it. It’s obvious to others.
We have white privilege even if disadvantaged in other ways – gender, sexual identification, physical. We still have the privilege of race. We are not removed from the privileged group.
There are Two Different Forms of White Privilege This is critical. These two forms of White privilege are profoundly different and require very different approaches.
Racism has been built into every facet of American life over 500 years. It’s in our culture, our corporate and governmental structures, policies, and norms, it’s in our legal system, our educational systems, etc.
The outcomes we see in terms of wealth, education, involvement in the criminal justice system, health status, careers, etc. result from the designs of our organizations and communities over the centuries. The results have been produced by organizations and communities perfectly designed over time to produce them. How could it be any other way?
Individuals have responsibility for the choices they make, but those choices are made and influenced within our communities and organizations – and that influence is the real power. The greatest challenge is organization and community design – designing organizations and communities that get the desired outcomes.
Black racism has been a central issue for America since its founding. It splits the country – we fought a civil war over it and still are in some ways. Most of the principles, solutions, strategies and “asks” of people are common across issues of diversity. Significant sustained progress in countering Black racism will affect other areas of diversity in the process. We can redeploy learnings and resources gained in countering Black racism, just as we can learn from efforts to counter other forms of oppression. This site is simply focused on White people countering racism.
“There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not lead single issue lives.”
Implicit Bias: the attitudes or stereotypes that we hold in the unconscious parts of our brain. Our implicit or unconscious biases influence our thinking, feeling and behaviors toward individuals or groups – out of our conscious control. Our implicit biases are not just about race. They include ethnicity, gender, appearance, political affiliation, socio-economic status, etc.
hundreds of years
The primary way is to #1 search for our implicit biases and bring them to our conscious awareness where we can deal with them; and #2 replace them. This puts us in charge and decreases the unconscious influence.
Recognizing that a response is based on a stereotype, labeling it as stereotypic (implicit bias), and reflecting on where it came from – become aware of the stereotypes you hold
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion are mutually reinforcing principles. Diversity of a workforce alone is not sufficient. It also requires Inclusion – a sense of belonging – and Equity – a sense of fairness. It is the combination that makes the difference and each needs to be pursued strategically.
Diversity emphasizes the need for representation of groups that are systematically underrepresented. Diversity is the presence of differences that enrich a workplace. Those differences can range from race, gender, and sexual orientation to ethnicity, socio-economic status, and age. Those are just examples.
Equity promotes justice and fairness in an organization’s various policies, processes, systems, culture, etc. It can be heavily focused on HR, but it needs to be embedded throughout the organization. Equity is ensuring that diverse individuals have the access, resources, and opportunities to succeed and develop within the organization.
Note. Equity (vs. equality) acknowledges that not all people and communities are starting from the same place due to current and historic systems and norms. Equity means providing different types and levels of support based on the needs of an individual or group to achieve fairness.
Inclusion means creating an environment of belonging. This is an environment where employees feel respected, valued, connected, and supported. It is an environment that encourages them to reach their full potential and provides the avenues to do so.
From the standpoint of a moral case, you either believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion as basic principles or you don’t. The business case can be argued, but there is increasing evidence that there is a significant advantage for organizations that successfully pursue DEI. And the better they do at DEI, the greater the competitive advantage. It varies by industry, but the basic pattern is shared.
Some of the basic advantages include higher levels of employee performance, greater ability to innovate, a larger talent pool, higher rates of retention, greater employee engagement, and better decision-making.
For example, McKinsey discovered over the course of several years that the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams outperformed peers in the 4th quartile by 15% in 2014, 21% in 2017, and 25% in 2019.
The Boston Consulting Group studied 1700 companies across 8 countries and found similar outcomes. They found a statistically significant relationship between diversity and innovation outcomes in all countries. Companies with above average total diversity achieved 19% higher innovation revenues and 9% EBIT margins.
Deloitte found that when employees saw their organizations as committed to diversity and inclusion they reported better business performance in terms of innovation (83%), responsiveness to changing customer needs (31%) and team collaboration (42%)
There are numerous other studies with similar findings, but the field is still young. However, the basic direction is clear. DEI, when done well, does provide a significant competitive advantage in a number of key areas.
Microaggressions are the everyday subtle – and often unintentional – slights, insults, putdowns, and invalidations that communicate some kind of bias toward historically marginalized groups. The difference between microaggressions and overt racism, is that when people commit microaggressions they might not even be aware of them – and their impact. However, microaggressions are rooted in bias, whether conscious or not.
Note. Other under-represented groups also experience microaggressions, but the focus here is on microaggressions and Black people.
It’s Not an Issue of Overreaction
The whole issue of microaggressions can be annoying to White people and it’s easy to write them off as Black people being overly sensitive. But microaggressions hurt. They invalidate and diminish. A single microaggression may not wound in and of itself, but it will hit an already open wound because Black people have experienced thousands of microaggressions in their lives – as well as more overt racism.
“I Didn’t Mean it that Way”
Most microaggressions aren’t conscious attempts to put someone or a group down. When I commit a microaggression it doesn’t mean that I’m a racist or immoral person. It’s probable that I didn’t even know that I had a negative impact on someone because I didn’t mean to. But I did diminish someone, and not meaning to or being unaware of it is irrelevant. What is relevant is what I’m going to do about it.
Responding to Committing a Microaggression
I can stop, be open to accepting it, figure out where it came from, and make amends as needed. Personally, it’s a chance for me to become more self-aware, smarter, and more in charge of living according to my values. I don’t need to beat myself up or feel bad about myself. I just need to avoid a defensive reaction and go after the challenge. I can turn a microaggression into a significant addition to my ability to be the kind of person I want to be.
There is a lot of conversation about the difference between a White person “not being a racist” and “being an anti-racist.” It’s an important distinction because if we are not actively anti-racists, we are part of the problem.
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
– Elie Wiesel
As White people there are three identities or postures that we can take. This may be an over-simplification, but not by much. We can’t not choose.
Racism has been built into the fabric of America for 500 years and lives at every level – individual, family, group, organization, and community (from local to national). It is anchored in belief systems, cultural norms, laws, policies, processes, structures, literature, and the media. It is everywhere and it has momentum.
A critical mass of the “I’m not a racist” group will need to move from passively supporting that reality to actively fighting it to successfully counter that level of embedded racism.
Being aware and educated about racism without intentional sustained action is useless. We need to get off the sidelines and put ourselves in the game – even if we are unsure of what to do or how to do it.
These Identities are Not “Fixed” – They Can Evolve
Because racism is such an embedded dynamic in American life, most of us have been born into a world that started us off in the “I am a racist” or “I am not a racist” groups. We didn’t choose our initial group and most of us weren’t even conscious of it for years.
The challenge now is to take the responsibility and move into the “I am an anti-racist” posture – committing to targeted sustained action to match the complexity and difficulty of countering racism.
I was born into a racist world and had internalized that by the time I was 3 or 4. It wasn’t a choice. It was simply “the way it was” and, as a child I became part of it. There were no messages of any kind to counter racism – from family, friends, media, school, church, etc.
It took a long time to begin to become aware of racism and how it had molded me – and begin to consciously take responsibility for confronting that internalized racism. I will never be finished because it was built into me almost at a DNA level, so I will be a “recovering racist” for the rest of my life. I feel very little guilt – some regret at not catching on quicker – but a great deal of responsibility for “righting the wrong.”
This sometimes happens and it can be immediate and daunting. There are lots of reasons it can happen and lots of ways it can show up – from passive to direct. Don’t assume resentment or rejection and don’t be discouraged if it happens. Keep engaging because it is sometimes an immediate reaction that doesn’t last.
There are some good reasons for a negative reaction to our engagement, although they are not helpful to anyone. A big one is a lack of trust and a wariness about who we are, what we bring and our ability to “hold the course” and not retreat into our White comfort zone. Black people don’t have the choice about being in the struggle. As White people we do, and that’s a big issue because we can always leave the field of play and go back to the sidelines.
There are also natural concerns about how much we know or understand, whether we will try to take over and “do it our way”, our motivation, and how much we are really willing to commit.
Expect ambivalence –“We’re glad you’re here to contribute, and we don’t trust you, plus we have to deal with White people everywhere else in our lives and it’s tiring.” Given the last 500 years it can’t really be any other way. There may be much more “we’re glad you’re here” and that often grows over time with experience, but there is almost always some dynamic tension.
That doesn’t need to stop us and one of the ways to prove that we can be trusted is to not be deterred by it.
For good reasons in most cases Black people in an organization or group won’t know who we are or what to expect from us. Their experience may tell them that White people’s commitment can’t be trusted.
Initially, the best we can do is to acknowledge the lack of trust and the history that supports it – and be clear on our commitment. We can ask that the Black people involved make the leap of faith to trust us until we violate that trust – and then be very conscious about being trustworthy.
To support that leap of faith we can be clear about why we are committing to engage and what capabilities we are bringing. We can’t be shy or diminish who we are with an “aw shucks I don’t have much to offer” approach.
We can be very direct, “This is what you can expect from me and what I bring.” This is not about us presenting your resume, but rather us making a clear commitment. Then, of course, we have to “walk the talk” and be true to our commitment and that requires focus and consistent discipline.
We can also model accountability by frequently and informally asking, ‘How am I doing? What can I keep doing, start doing or stop doing?”
There is an article in the Critical Topics section that can be helpful in creating this approach.
See Becoming an Ally
Racism that is systemic and structural requires complex efforts to create the desired changes. It involves a lot of stakeholders with interests and a lot of decision makers that have to make tough decisions about laws, policies, processes, practices, systems, relationships, etc. And then the changes have to be effectively implemented.
Advocacy can both challenge decision-makers to “do the right thing”, and it can support them when they do, including implementation efforts.
That is a very common question – few of us see ourselves as “advocates.” But, look at the definition: Advocacy is the act of supporting, defending, or arguing for a specific cause. The purpose of advocacy is to bring about change.
Almost all of us have played that role many times – in small or large settings – even if we didn’t identify with being an advocate. Although it’s possible to be an advocate acting alone – particularly in countering personal White privilege – the highest impact advocacy will be focused on systemic or structural racism, and that usually requires group efforts.
Fortunately, contributing to a group advocacy effort can take many forms, few of which require being an “expert” advocate. We can play an effective role in an advocacy effort through research, communications, group development and support, connections, and a wide range of administrative tasks (from secretarial and accounting to fund development and transportation). We can also bring personal characteristics, such as courage, perseverance, a sense of humor, positive energy, and discipline.
Almost all of us have value that we can add immediately and we can add more value as we gain experience and competencies.
You certainly don’t need to be expert or totally aware and prepared. You just need to be in motion. That is because we bring 70-85% of the characteristics and capabilities required with us because we have developed them over a lifetime.
We can develop the other capabilities as we act – becoming increasingly educated, aware and competent as we go. And any stumbles or missteps probably won’t break anything or make things worse.
Making a concerted effort early to increase awareness, knowledge and competence is a very wise thing to do. However, that should be in concert with early actions because preparing doesn’t counter racism – actions do.
There is a lot online about this question, so search to see what makes sense to you. There are some profiles of effective allies.
Some of the basics include: Make the effort to connect. Do the work to become self-aware and minimally educated (enough to begin acting). ACT – in small or large ways. Know the characteristics and skills you bring and offer them. Add new knowledge and skills as you act.
There are two reasons. First, you can be much more effective when connected to others (individuals, groups, or organizations) because of the support you can receive and give. That is important for countering personal racism, and it is essential for countering systemic or structural racism because that will be an extended journey.
Second, countering systemic or structural racism will require effective groups and organizations to conduct the required advocacy – over time. And that will require people committing to each other to lead and follow.
So, connecting is important for inspiration and support on the journey and for creating the setting for effective sustained advocacy.
Perhaps very little – but even that can be meaningful and have an impact. Use the section on What White People Can Do to see what actions you can take while still maintaining a family and career.
The big difference not between doing a little or doing a lot – it is between doing nothing vs doing something. The key is being in the game vs. being on the sideline. Starting small is fine. With experience you can see how well it goes and determine to do more, do less, do something different, etc.
Keep in mind that even doing a little can open the world up a bit, you can connect with others, and you can get something back in terms of satisfaction with outcomes or effort.
As White people when we seriously commit to acting to counter racism, we are engaged – by definition – in a journey of change. It’s not an event or a project. It’s a journey.
We must leave a known world (our comfort zone) and go forth to encounter a great deal of unknown. We will be tested and grow and mature as we meet the tests. The tests can come on several levels – physical, intellectual, emotional, social and/or spiritual.
There will be some “old ways” we will need to let go of (from beliefs and to behaviors) and some “new ways” we will need to discover and master. And we will experience being in-between the old and the new – “inbetweenity.”
We will need to find sources of energy and renewal as well as others to guide and support us. And we will need to develop perseverance and resilience to deal with the inevitable frustrations and setbacks.
What this describes is the classic myth of the heroic journey. Almost all cultures throughout time have used this myth to teach their members how to create or renew a life or the life of the community. It’s not about being a larger-than-life hero. It’s about saying “yes” to the journey and managing it.
Countering racism is a journey that requires effort, risk, and potential sacrifice (giving up something for something of greater value). A personal vision of what might be states why it’s worth it. There are many benefits that might result – individual, interpersonal, organizational and community. It’s important that they be identified partly to provide direction and partly to provide what’s called “vision led energy” that supports us on such journeys.
There are a lot of change leadership models out there, so the key is to choose one that fits your style and the natures the change you are leading as well as the nature of your organization or community.
Our change leadership model is structured with six leadership roles – each with three core strategies – and plays out in three “acts” (two roles “in then beginning”; three roles “on the path”; and one role “in completion.” There is a list of roles and strategies along with guiding questions for application.
The good news is that there is an extraordinary range of resources out there that can help with awareness and education. The bad news is that there is no single set of resources to recommend. This is a highly personal issue, so there is no recipe or set of resources that will fit everyone’s interests. Part of the commitment to countering racism is finding the resources that best fit your interests.
Fortunately, that does not need to be an onerous task. It’s best approached with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to explore.
Searching for specific topics online is probably the best way to start. As with most online searches there will be a lot of references, so it’s a matter of seeing which ones fit your interests and discarding the others. Most resources lead to other resources, so you will be able to find lots of sources.
There are also courses, seminars, podcasts, online meetings and panels, etc. These are sponsored by universities, faith communities, interest groups and organizations, community groups, and some corporations. Most are online.
Note. Developing awareness and knowledge is important, but it should not stop you from acting. Act – learn while acting – you’ll learn about yourself, about racism, about how to counter it, etc. And you’ll be contributing to countering racism vs. just preparing.
As with most challenges related to countering racism, developing awareness and deepening understanding is best done with others – even one other.
I’m certainly not trying to speak for all Black people – but basically, they are tired of trying to educate us. Part of our commitment is preparing ourselves – it needs to be our energy and commitment – and we can educate ourselves and each other quite well.
There is an extraordinary amount of information online – in print and video – and a number of good books. There are also courses and seminars sponsored by universities, faith communities and other organizations.
We can also listen to Black voices. There are a lot of Black voices in print, in movies, online and in music. If we act to counter racism we will also be interacting with Black people and their voices can be heard. A lot of the Black voices can be disturbing, but that’s part of the education and the challenge.
We can accelerate our learning by learning with others – even one other.
This can require a lot of searching, but it’s worth it.
There are some large national organizations and networks both community and corporate. Locally there are national affiliates, faith communities, organizations targeting specific issues, etc.