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3 Reasons Antiracism Efforts Are Failing At Your Organization

The year 2020 has been called the year of America’s racial reckoning by some. It’s been called a time where movements for racial and social justice exploded on the national scene. I have to be honest. I am not convinced. As a student of history, I have learned to analyze the difference between what activist Joe Madison calls a moment versus a movement. Was #metoo a moment or a movement? In my opinion, it has turned out to be a moment in history because I have not seen wholesale systemic change in how women are treated in the workplace beyond certain individuals like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and others rightfully having their careers and fame challenged and more or less ended. I feel a similar vibe happening with the work of antiracism.

I have been engaged in so many powerful trainings and talks with organizations on the issue of antiracism, defined by some as “the policy or practice of opposing racism and promoting racial tolerance.” From the human resources to the executive level, I have been truly impressed by the sincerity by which these organizations have taken issues of racial or social justice head on. Below I am sharing three reasons why the antiracist efforts of your organization may not be working.

  1. You do not fully understand what antiracism is.

Is antiracism just a word at your company? Are you and your colleagues really learning vocabulary that speaks to the challenges we face today? Can you and your colleagues explain the difference between racism and systemic racism or a microaggression and a stereotype? Words matter. Definitions matter. I have had multiple situations where I had to work with an organization on just agreeing to the same definition of a term like antiracism before we could move on in any other part of the discussion and it was completely worth it because in times when this was not done, we had to backtrack and start over with definitions.

This is an extremely important step because if I’m looking at systemic racism as a “a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization” and you are looking at racism from the lens of “I never owned slaves so I’m not responsible for racism” or “if you just work hard you can overcome anything” without even acknowledging the “systemic” part of “systemic racism”, any training we do is going to be unintentionally sabotaged from the beginning. Invest the time necessary to get on the same page before you move forward.

  1. You are too focused on the problem and not the solutions.

Too many organizations have focused their antiracism efforts on reading articles and books and talking about them. This obviously must continue but it cannot be enough. For many nonwhite people, especially black people I have spoken to at some organizations, antiracism training is just the replacement term for diversity training. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is the new version of saying “We value diversity.” Organizations that have been more successful with their antiracism efforts have shown that black salaries matter and black employees matter. In short, they understand that representation matters.

Organizations that have hired more nonwhite people at the executive level, granted more power to their directors of diversity, and have increased representation of nonwhite people across the board are experiencing greater employee satisfaction and are celebrated more by their customers, exemplified by MSNBC naming Rashida Jones as president of the network and introducing more shows hosted by black people such as Tiffany Cross and Johnathan Capehart. It is represented by President-elect Biden not just saying he believed in diversity but making his cabinet more diverse including adding Native American congressperson Deb Haaland to his cabinet as well as appointing the first openly gay cabinet member in Pete Buttigieg.

  1. Antiracism is a fad at your organization.

I remember during the summer of 2020 seeing “black lives matter” signs going up everywhere from Dell to Starbucks. Even republican senators like Mitt Romney had marched for black lives and verbalized the phrase. Microsoft’s advertising department got in trouble after an email surfaced asking that they paint a #blacklivesmatter mural while the protests were “still relevant.” This led to a powerful response by artist Shantell Martin, who partially wrote that “Education and Accountability must occur in order to see REAL change. Supporting equality only when it’s popular is in itself a form of racism.”

While the aforementioned situation does not represent all of Microsoft, it does express the sentiments that I have seen by some leaders of organizations and companies that see work on antiracism as the flavor of the month. The fact of the matter is that, especially in the age of social media, your company will indeed be exposed positively or negatively. Your organization would actually be better off doing nothing rather than putting forth a half-hearted measure that will create more problems than you are trying to solve. Make sure your efforts are sincere and you are more likely to get buy in from most parties involved.

     Going forward.

At the end of the day, it is important that your organization steps back to truly assess what your goals are when you state that you want embrace antiracist policies. I have stated before that even though I am an antiracist and committed to the work, I am not a big fan of the word because it literally focuses (by the definition of the word “anti”) on what we are against as opposed to what we are for. It is similar to the late Mother Teresa stating that she would never attend an anti-war rally but would attend a pro-peace rally.

If you really want to assess your antiracist efforts, you should look at what progress your company has made eight months after the killing of George Floyd, which was one of the major catalysts for today’s antiracist efforts along with the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the same way you have not heard their names on television lately due to potential social justice fatigue, is your organization experiencing antiracism fatigue or just not moving forward? The three steps above may help you but only if you and your organization are sincere about the work and honest about exposing the challenges your organization faces in order to make sure that you are part of a movement and not a moment.

Should schools also speak separately to white students, parents, and staff?

I have been really impressed by the steps taken by schools to speak to the racial tensions engulfing America right now. I have had the honor in my work to also lead some of these discussions as well and will be leading more. As a parent of K-12 children, I have also watched my own school’s response to the crisis in America today. Moreover, I have spent a great deal of time reviewing the responses of schools at the university level. While I have appreciated the fact that so many of these institutions have initiated or renewed a commitment to ensuring that black lives matter, I have found myself asking one question over and over again: what direct message is going out to white students, students, and staff?

            Across the country, many social media posts have popped with some form of @blackat… handle. These are accounts where black students as well as alumni have posted their negative experiences being black at their schools. These stories started to really trend in 2016 after incidents of racism at schools like American University, where I teach. I was inspired by this movement to finally write about my own “black at” experience from 7th-12th grade at Boston Latin School. I believe the @blackat… postings are also a large part of the reason why schools have been feeling more pressure to respond to their black students in ways they have not before. I wonder if, in some unintentional way, that this is leading to black students being singled out in ways that might do more harm than good despite the best intentions of schools. Let’s look at an example.

            One high school I was watching sent out an email that they were having a zoom call for black students, another call for multiracial students, and a third one for all students. I have spoken at enough schools to know that this can backfire. While many black students can be vocal and will speak up on issues, this type of action can lead to black students feeling they have to be the representative for all black people, which is an added burden, particularly in schools where they are not in the majority. Furthermore, not meeting with the white students separately can make it seem like they’re being brought in as allies and not as partners. I have writtenabout how this concept of “allyship” can create more problems than it solves. Another reason this is problematic is because many of the challenges black students face come at the hands of white students in addition to other issues, such as curriculum and staffing. Did I expect the students who wore white hoods in protest of my running for class president to really care for a call to all students about racial unity? Those students needed separate interventions, which never came and made me feel more marginalized. Schools therefore need to create environments where white students can be organized and spoken to directly about the antiracist work they must be doing amongst themselves. Robin DiAngelo speaks in White Fragility to the work white people must do to challenge racism. The book is primarily for adults but much of the work can be instructive for students as well.

            This takes us also to white parents and staff. I have appreciated the calls I have been on and led with parents of all backgrounds, and oftentimes the white parents and staff outnumber the black parents and staff. This makes sense given the makeup of these schools but if the black parents and staff are going to be separated or addressed in separate conversations, which happens, wouldn’t the fight for equity and equality necessitate that white, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American parents and staff be spoken to separately as well? Are schools equipped to even have that conversation? Are they ready to discuss, for example, how many private schools always use a black child as the face for the financial aid campaigns although the school may have more white students in the school on some form of financial aid? Are they ready to discuss the social networks that often form among white parents and staff that often exclude black people unless some form of representation is needed? My wife and I have had to often think twice before sending our kids to some birthday parties because we had to be sure that our kids were really invited because of friendship and not out of a desire to have diversity at a party. Examples like these are endless.

            At the end of the day, I could write an entire dissertation on the ways in which our schools are failing its black students. Many like Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and Glenn Singleton have already done that work and more are doing it now. What is most important now is that schools realize that black students are suffering for real reasons that go beyond lack of representation of their full history in the curriculum. Much of what we suffer as black students, parents, and staff in these schools comes at the hands of our interactions, or lack thereof, with white students, parents, and staff. If schools are going to be really serious about addressing issues related to the black lives matter movement, they must be equally dedicated to challenging white students, parents, and staff in an authentic way that leads them to understanding their role in this movement. It is obvious that all white people are not to blame and I commend the white student, parents, and staff who are out there doing the work every single day to condemn ignorance and create true equity and equality. It is high time, however, that schools directly challenge their white students, parents, and staff in ways that go beyond a book club and curriculum review. Those are good points of departure but the journey is long and must go deeper beyond this moment.