Race work refers to effort that pushes for racial equity. It is anti racism and involves questioning taken-for-granted assumptions, interrogating patterns of behavior and outcomes, making the ordinary strange (Lightfoot, 2010), transforming dominant cultures, and reorganizing hierarchies. It is work that commands respect, takes guts, and fulfills destinies. It’s the kind of work that evolves the soul, incites the tenacity of the spirit, and commands invisible forces of the universe to conspire to ensure the light of the greater good wins.
When a human being embodies these qualities, we sometimes call it leadership. And I’ve deduced three kinds of relationships between race work and leadership.
- As Race Work Increases, Leadership Increases
- As Race Work Increases, Positionality Matters, But Leadership Decreases
- As Race Work Decreases, Crises of Confidence In Leadership Increases
As Race Work Increases, Leadership Increases
When an event shakes up the racial status quo, the call to do race work increases. In equal measure, the call for leadership increases as well. This kind of call to lead commands courage, conviction, and creativity. It's a call to create the unprecedented. To choose to be brave over convenience. To choose to face inequity’s tenacity.
Because of the dynamics that occur around race work, the stakes tend to be high. Trust is delicate and on the line - hard to give, easy to regret giving, hard to earn, and easy to lose.
The costs often outweigh the price many are willing to pay, with little, if any, return on material investment. People fight against the potential of losses, from a multitude of directions. Such fights to not lose breed an embattled thunderstorm within and without.
Race work is a kind of work that catalyzes feedback, pushback, and blowback.
It’s the kind of work that requires equal parts vision, strategy, and execution. It requires results and demands accountability.
It’s the kind of work that changes things. It’s the kind of loss that transforms things.
As Race Work Increases, Positionality Matters, But Leadership Decreases
Positionality in a hierarchy matters. It’s one of the reasons people pursue promotion, compete to land in executive positions, and why the market tends to pay higher salaries for these roles.
Still, positionality and leadership are not synonymous. Neither are manager and leadership or authority and leadership synonymous. Yet, when an event disrupts the racial status quo, many members of hierarchical organizations look to those positioned at the highest rungs.
This looking to those at the highest rungs of the hierarchy is not uncommon. Those at the top are often expected to maintain the status quo and to preserve equilibrium. In exchange, hierarchy toppers are granted privileges, exemptions, benefits, and some control by the institution and the people who are a part of it.
It is not uncommon to hear championing to “set the tone from the top,” and to “start at the head.” Unfortunately, many find themselves disappointed by their actions and inaction.
It is how we can know that positionality and leadership are not equivalent. Neither are manager and leadership or authority and leadership equivalent. It is also how we can know that leadership can, and needs, to come from other parts of a hierarchy.
Leadership can be expressed from those not institutionally positioned. It’s why race work can breathe beneath the highest rung in the hierarchy. It can also explain why race work requires an extension beyond one’s institutional authority.
As Race Work Decreases, Crises of Confidence In Leadership Increases
Given the high stakes that come with race work, an abundance of forces can collectively operate to decrease its reach. Here are five ways race work decreases.
- Ineffective race work gets allowed to persist.
- High impact race work gets cancelled.
- Potential race work gets discredited and blocked before it can launch.
- Potent race work gets diluted and watered down.
- No race work is happening and the void is maintained.
When needed race work is muted, crises of confidence in leadership increases. Look for these 10 signs of crises of confidence in leadership when race work gets quieted.
- You hear murmurs of “nothing’s changed.”
- Authority figures seen as inflicting racial harm are experienced as being protected and not held accountable.
- Little to no feedback travels up the chain of command or when it does it’s often cast aside.
- Channels for filing grievances get weaponized.
- Reluctant acquiescence emerges across the team.
- Leaks to external sources.
- Silence, withdrawal, and automatons show up for team meetings.
- Active protection stances like sitting and nodding signal a culture of fear.
- Different kinds of “squeaky wheels” are erroneously seen as equivalent.
- Communications and PR departments get activated to attempt to manage optics that are largely experienced as “empty platitudes, ” “tokenizing,” or “tone deaf.”
Getting Intentional About the Kind of Relationship You Want to Cultivate Between Race Work and Leadership
Get intentional about the kind of relationship you want to cultivate between race work and leadership. You have other choices than being caught on your backfoot, reactive, inert, or igniting a vicious cycle of racial crisis. You’re not alone if you feel inundated, flooded, and in negative capability. You can build your capacity to unblock the destinies that racism and sexism delay and deny.
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