What is Systemic Racism & How Does It Operate in the Workplace?

Dr. Myosha McAfee

Founder | CEO of The Equitect™

The words systemic racism can evoke both fascination and fear. It reminds us of a painful past that penetrates every inch of the present. If we want to minimize its implication for the future, there’s much work to do. Systemic racism is a phenomenon that can be hard to understand and to explain. Building on many social theorists before me and my theory of the kinesiology of race (McAfee, 2013), I define systemic racism as dynamic and atmospheric racial meanings that move through the operations and interactions of organizations (Bonilla-Silva, 2002; Omi & Winant, 1996).


It’s common to see race as a noun. In my research, I’ve underscored the kinetic motif of race - repositioning race as a verb. The kinesiology of race - a theoretical product of my grounded theory research - interprets race as a kinetic phenomenon that is dynamic, atmospheric, both visible and invisible, and at times non-observable in real time, but observable in effect.


Racial meanings are evaluative, inaccurate, socio-historical, and socially constructed with real material consequences. For example, racial meanings are moving through interactions and the operations of organization when:

  • The unchecked feedback about a high number of Black cis-women employees involves descriptors like “aggressive”, “intimidating,” “difficult to work with,” and “strong arming.”
  • Executive presence is narrowly conceived as embodied when only expressed by White men and their ways of being.
  • Power and influence expressed by Women of Color is seen as inappropriate and “overbearing,” and “bossy” when expressed by White women, but strength and a leadership trait by White cis-men.  
  • Racial and gender representation predominates for particular groups in outcome metrics of performance, promotion, retention and climate surveys.

How Systemic Racism Influences the Strategy of an Organization

Consider how the strategy pursued by a team, function, or organization occurs. A ton of sifting and sorting occurs over the arc of ideation, comparison, evaluation, and final choice. This sifting and sorting often occurs along lines of race, gender, ability, language/dialectic, etc.

For an exercise, reflect on the last strategic planning meeting you attended or the last pitch to an executive bench. Whose goals were pitched as compared to who goals were pursued, funded, prioritized.


In follow up meetings about the strategic direction of the team, whose topics were centered as compared to whose topics were silenced and marginalized? Which topics were strengthened through inquiry and analyses vs overlooked or rejected.


Whose big ideas get raised to function at the organizational level? Become the “big bet,” the company-wide strategy?


Ultimately, when one observes and tallies these kinds of organizational interactions and operations, a pattern often emerges by race and its intersections. There can, of course, be outliers, departures from the mean, and edge cases. Still, more often than not, a pattern often emerges by race and its intersections.


Whose ideas get voiced, supported, blocked, and tabled end up determining organizational policies, processes, culture, and products, in effect.  It determines business as usual.



How Systemic Racism Shapes Project Management & Cross-Functional Work

Similar to the above, consider the conception and initiation phase of a project that is scoped to cross organizational boundaries. A multitude of sifting and sorting occurs along lines of race, gender, ability, language/dialectic, etc. too.


At your next cross-functional working group meeting, scan and track who initiates the workstream, who gets tapped in to collaborate on the project, and who assumes a role of leadership as noted by who speaks, when, how, the tone, and frequency.


When feedback is shared about the people involved in the cross-functional working group, analyze the feedback for:

  • The words chose and for whom
  • The emotional tenor of the words and from whom
  • The storylines constructed and told to whom
  • Which stories are readily believed, what counts as evidence, what counts as enough evidence to be persuasive


Again, when one observes and tallies these kinds of organizational interactions and operations, a pattern often emerges by race and its intersections. There can, of course, be outliers, departures from the mean, and edge cases. Still, more often than not, a pattern often emerges by race and its intersections.


Who gets to work on projects that are scoped to cross organizational boundaries and what gets said about them end up determining reputation, opportunities, access, promotion, performance evaluation, growth, and career trajectory.



When Racial Patterns Become Systemic Racism

The examples above show how everyday interactions that seem trivial and inconsequential can, over time, accumulate to effects as heavy as organizational processes and career trajectories. The sifting and sorting that happens along the way are not trivial and inconsequential. The sifting and sorting that happens biases who gets advantaged and gridlocked in organizational processes and interactions - what is often referred to as systemic racism. In my theory of the kinesiology of race, sifting, sorting, advantaging and gridlocking are what I call racial kinetics.  As such, these racial kinetics bear upon the economic viability of real people. Racial kinetics impact real people’s pursuit of sacred purpose and destiny.

Taking on Systemic Racism

The thought of taking on a system invokes imagery of David and Goliath. It’s part of the reason systemic racism evokes both fear and fascination. It’s easy to feel outnumbered, outsmarted, overwhelmed, and outcasted. Build your capacity to unblock the destinies that racism and sexism delay and deny. Visit www.theequitect.com for tools, guides, and opportunities for expansion and evolution. For more thought leadership like this, subscribe to the email list here.

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