(Updated from 03/29/2021)
I was honored to work with Christine Michel Carter of Health on an article about institutionalized racism. Disappointingly, much of what we discussed was cut from the final article, but that’s not uncommon in publishing. I’ve been writing since the early 1990s, when I had my own Hockey Ink! byline, so I try not to take it personally anymore. Besides, I have this blog to share with you what I hope will be useful, especially those who have skin the color of mine and are around the same age.
Maybe you’ve grown up poor like me, possibly even in Kentucky, when our state ranked among the highest in poverty and the lowest in education. You’ve been trying to understand racism for much of your life, and it’s never made much sense to you. The people around you who seemed disadvantaged were diverse in race, ethnicity, and more. The privileged were those with money, connections, and opportunities the rest of you didn’t have.
Perhaps you didn’t notice most of them were also white. You didn’t identify with them, so it has been shocking for you to suddenly be lumped together with them as the privileged. But that doesn’t mean you weren’t privileged. You’re listening, learning, and looking differently at the world.
Ouch. You see it and feel it. The institutional racism has always been there. You didn’t notice it or question it when you did because you were benefiting from it–however slightly it might have been at times.
But now you know what your non-white friends had to overcome. You’ve heard the stories they were too ashamed to share before. You can relate to their trauma, even if you can’t fully understand their experiences.
Yet you feel powerless to make the big changes you believe are necessary. You aren’t a lawmaker, CEO, or even a hiring manager. And silence is violence? Dear, God! No! You aren’t a violent person. You want to help.
There are many ways you can dismantle the racist institutions.
First, you must identify them. We know that certain laws, rules, and practices have racist origins. Criminal laws and zoning regulations once had explicit race provisions, and although race might have been removed, the processes that stemmed from them haven’t changed much. Similarly, employment, health care, and education practices continue to have disparate impact due to racist foundations.
We might hear the n word less frequently from the mouths of white people, but other terms replaced it. What was once overt discrimination is now more covert. You know that “welfare queen”, “pimp”, and “gang banger” are all code for Black in many circles.
In the workplace, the terms “unprofessional” or “low-class” have been used to exclude minorities. This does not mean every time those terms are used that they are racist. I’ve been called them, too. But the intent is often to diminish and dismiss Black candidates or employees without getting sued for discrimination.
(FYI, the EEOC, NYSDHR, and NYCCHR can often see through these.)
It’s getting harder for all of us to claim ignorance.
Structural or systemic racism might present itself more subtly today than in America’s past, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still here. It’s time to make a change. And perhaps that is where it begins—with pure intention. Courage and consistent, intentional actions are what cause big changes (see Atomic Habits and Talent is Overrated).
We likely have to do some deep soul searching first and accept that it’s going to be uncomfortable. Nevertheless, this is where we must begin. Again.
- Don’t stop with one Black friend and think you know enough about the Black experience. One person does not represent an entire group of people.
- Ask more questions and listen for the hurts you can heal. You can’t heal every hurt, but there is likely something you have the time, money, energy, or expertise to relieve.
- Look for top-down and bottom-up solutions. Go to town halls, school board meetings, and other places people are discussing solutions. Protests and books are great for creating awareness, but we have awareness now. It’s time for solutions at every level.
- Speak up when you see changes that can be made, regardless of how small. Sometimes the change is in a policy. At other times, it’s in an individual’s behavior.
- Develop your persuasion and sales skills. Demands aren’t typically accepted without resistance and might be best reserved for times in which there is a danger of imminent harm. Most of the time, you will need to sell decision-makers on a potential solution, which means you will need to know how it could be executed and toward what desired result.
Click here to read the final article, which includes insight from other contributors.