Confronting Systemic Racism and Leading Change in Organizations
Activist and author Nova Reid spoke with Booth professor Jane Risen on how to create a more diverse, inclusive, anti-racist workplace and world.
- March 09, 2021
Booth’s D&I Dialogues is a program series for Booth alumni to examine aspects of diversity in work and in life. Featuring speakers from unique backgrounds, the program series delves into diversity and inclusion–related topics such as social justice and equity, unconscious bias and unpacking all the aspects of bias, organizational strategies for overcoming bias, the business case for diversity, and the gap between dominate culture (“fit”) and a culture of inclusion.
During the latest, hour-long virtual D&I Dialogue, Reid and Risen discussed issues of race, diversity, and inclusion from a British and European perspective. They explored what can be done to tackle racial injustice in the workplace, in light of both the moral and the business imperative for positive change. Reid focused on ways of identifying and confronting overt and subtle racism, discussed organization-wide solutions, and explained how listening differently can be the first step to meaningful dialogue around race.
Systemic Racism: What It Is, and How to Recognize It
The best definition of systemic racism Reid has found comes from Texas A&M sociologist Joe Feagin. “‘Racism is systemic when it’s embedded in all social institutions, structures, and social relations, with co-dependent racist institutions, policies, practices, ideas, and behavior that give unjust resources, rights, and power to white people, while denying them to Black people,’” said Reid, summarizing Feagin.
It’s difficult to recognize systemic racism, Reid said, because we’ve become accustomed to understanding racism as individual, overt acts. “It’s not so easy to recognize when it’s at work, when it’s in the pay disparities, the health outcome disparities, when it’s in the friends that you love, when it’s in family members,” said Reid. “There is a huge education piece that needs to happen.” Indeed, systemic was only added to one dictionary’s definition of racism as recently as last year, and only after complaints over its inadequacy.
DEI Differences: Experiences of Racism in the UK
Reid said that while it’s easy for Brits to point fingers at the events unfolding across the pond, “Actually, the racism that is experienced in the UK is much more pervasive and insidious, because it’s under a veneer of, ‘Let's just be positive and be kind and not talk about it,’” Reid said. “If you put these individuals who are not talking about it into organizations, the dysfunction is institutional as well.” The result is that matters of racism are rarely addressed in organizations. And when they are addressed, Reid noted, “only 1% [are] successful in employment tribunals in the UK. That’s not addressing racism. That’s a systemic issue.”
Many UK companies put out statements confirming their support for the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. That said, Reid called on these companies to turn their warm words into action: “It’s easy to put a statement out. Thinking of yourself —and I say ‘yourself’ as an individual or an organization—as anti-racist, and actively demonstrating that you are, are two very different things.”
“To me, this is about being a better human being. One of the most powerful things we can do to be better humans is actively listen when it comes to anti-racism. . . . You’re listening. You’re not reacting. You’re not listening to respond. You’re listening just to hear them and to witness them in their anger, in their grief, in their pain, in their exasperation.”
Microaggression: What It Is, and What Can Be Done to Stamp It Out
A microaggression is a form of everyday racism and discrimination that communicates that you somehow don’t belong, said Reid. “Some common microaggressions that I get: ‘You don’t sound black’; ‘Can I touch your hair?’; ‘Where are you really from?’.” They might seem like harmless questions in isolation, but research shows Black people who are exposed to continued racial stress experience trauma that’s been likened to PTSD, said Reid.
It’s important to seek permission from the person who has received the microaggression before confronting the aggressor, she noted. “Check in with the person to validate his or her experience.” And if you are the aggressor, simply apologize. “A meaningful apology can stop the shame, the trauma response, and the gaslighting that goes on, which can make people question their sanity.”
Dialogue: Allyship and Listening
Regarding the concepts of ally and allyship, Reid noted that she has a love-hate relationship with the word ally. “I use it, because people understand it,” she said. “But to me, this is about being a better human being. One of the most powerful things we can do to be better humans is actively listen when it comes to anti-racism. . . . You’re listening. You’re not reacting. You’re not listening to respond. You’re listening just to hear them and to witness them in their anger, in their grief, in their pain, in their exasperation. And not have it be about you and who you are as an individual human being.”
“It’s about being honest about why it matters: because we want every human being in the world to be able to thrive and show up. This is a humanitarian crisis, rooted in our history, that has not been resolved yet. Until we face it, it will keep reproducing itself.”
Success Factor: Which Corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives Have Been Successful
The most progressive organizations break the problem down into bite-size chunks, Reid said. It has to start at the top, with people in positions of power taking up the mantle and bringing others along on their journey, whether it’s through diversity recruiting or inclusivity training.
That said, you can’t force people to engage with these issues, as it could provoke a backlash. Instead, leaders must inspire by embodying the values they hope to spread, said Reid. “It’s about being honest about why it matters: because we want every human being in the world to be able to thrive and show up. This is a humanitarian crisis, rooted in our history, that has not been resolved yet. Until we face it, it will keep reproducing itself.”
Positive Action: What Individuals Can Do to Drive Meaningful Change
The first step is to look inward, Reid said. “We’ve been born into a system that normalized white supremacy for centuries; it’s unavoidable that we’re going to have some programming that we need to interrogate. Go in with curiosity rather than embarrassment or shame.”
Education and awareness are critical, she said. “We can raise awareness on social media. We can engage in finding out more about interesting Black people in history.” Reid also recommended starting “anti-racism book clubs,” where participants have discussions about racism and hold each other accountable. “Do we have the courage to actually ask these questions, and start to think about what we can do to improve?”
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