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Rarely do our formal educational experiences prepare us to create healthy racial climates. Rarely do our racial wounds prepare us for the next racial harm. Rarely do our dreams and destinies withstand the storm of racism occurring at birth, in daycare, at pre-school, on the playground, in school, at the doctors office, in the workplace, and in the forensics exploring the causes of our death when police participate in racialized brutality.
Preparation for such atrocities commands an initiation of sorts, a heroine’s journey through a portal for transformation.
Here are seven places to Enter. Arrive. Begin.
1. Explore the underlying processes that create data that shows racially disparate outcomes of in-house systems. Many people perceive themselves as non-prejudiced, liberal, social justice oriented, even freedom fighters. Often, the data our organizations produce suggests the contrary. In the face of such dilemmas, there can be a tendency for some to avoid, withdraw, explain-away, or deny. Others might express racial battle fatigue, wounds, and a kind of bittersweet validation that they aren’t crazy. When we face the underlying processes creating this data, we face ourselves. We face the systems we create, operate, and maintain. Systemic inequality invisibly accumulates in business as usual. It’s in the most mundane, ordinary, seemingly benign interactions of the status quo. We are it and we all participate.
2. Increase the capacity to sit through unpleasant emotions (i.e. shame, guilt, anger, confusion). Seriously grappling with racial disparities/harms, white supremacy culture, and internalized and horizontal oppression opens the soul. Energy, in the form of emotions, pours out to get alchemized. When a team stifles, silences, ignores, and/or represses these emotions, progress tends to be severely halted. When interventions are superficial, one-off, and/or held in a careless, uncontained way progress tends to be severely halted. A few indicators of progress include: 1) Staff members spend less time in active protection (fight, flight responses) & passive resistance (i.e. silence, fawn, flop, freeze). 2) Team members sit through their own discomfort, looking internally for resolution more than externally projecting, distorting, or engaging in sincere fictions. 3) Over time, colleagues’ pre-intervention fears, preoccupations, & reservations have less of an impact on the way people show up in the room.
3. Shifting the dominant culture of an organization that is racially harmful often means engaging with multiple racial realities. These racial realities come together in a room and each person brings their histories with them. The histories in the room have life. They might collide, ricochet, fragment, and be grieved because of what’s been lost at the hands of abuses of power - colonization, imperialism, domination. Create an atmosphere where employees disagree productively, take risks, look forward to course-correction, and are willing to keep engaging with different choices while noting the varying ripple effects it has on others. Belonging grounded on a sense of fear, silence, or transactionally keeping the peace, is imprisonment at best. Liberation is the objective. Indicators of progress occur when group members are: walking towards stretch assignments, willing to raise the heat, and navigate disequilibrium within a productive zone.
4. When using programmatic strategy, organizational policy, and everyday interactions to solve racially-gendered disparate experiences of the organizational culture, increase the strategic and empirical rigor underlying them. This involves expertise, talent, skill, innovation, and an attentiveness to whether one’s ideas compel or encumber progress. This recommendation also involves thinking systemically and with complexity. One-off diversity events, reading circles, training, and conferences may seem like a good starting place, cost-effective and efficient, but we know they are not sufficient, effectual, or of high impact. Why, then suggest it at your next Equity Task Force meeting?
5. Use conflict/tension, rather than be leveled by it (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). Many people on work teams express dissatisfaction and disagreement with others’ assertions by holding back, rolling eyes, letting it slide, and sighing. Then they go talk about what happened in the parking lot, bathroom, happy hour, or after the meeting. Sometimes there is a polite hostility and nasty niceness, in emails, or in person, the next time there’s a gathering. And then there are dirty yeses - yeses that are said in the meeting that turn into no’s outside of the meeting, often without communication a mind has changed. All of these behaviors of forms of conflict avoidance I’ve observed and experienced. Conflict avoidance generates confusion, erodes trust, and plants seeds of bad faith partnerships. When done across racial lines, the implications are explosive. Why not say what is really thought, felt, and intended in the meeting? Or communicate a follow up message if you changed your mind?
6. Masked countermoves lead to inertia. When disagreement emerges, it is useful to stay in the disequilibrium until a resolution is reached. Oftentimes, I’ve observed assertions of power that look like powerlessness. For example, Person A crosses a power line to “give feedback” to the manager of Person B rather than talking to Person B or raising the issue in the group where the events occurred; Person A knowingly plans to escalate an issue without checking the facts of the story Person A has told themselves about what might be happening, and the managers of Persons A and B hear stories without checking the facts and apply consequences that are often unfair and asymmetrical to what the situation calls. The managers of Persons A and B seem unaware of how they have just been used.
This web of accumulated masked countermoves worsen rather than help produce equitable outcomes; inhibit rather than enable progress toward antiracism. Instead, build on “I disagree” sentiments by adding an alternative approach in the room where the discussion is occurring. That is, bringing in other stakeholders at higher positions of institutional power to reach a desired alternative outcome sets off a series of power moves.
Additionally, it's not enough to merely assert, “I disagree.” A more useful intervention might hear another person’s idea, listen for the song beneath the words and say, “I hear your proposal and see it's beneficial in x ways but disagree for y reasons. In light of these reasons, I would alternatively suggest that we z for a, b, and c reasons.” Still, it's a choice to silently sit in meeting after meeting, accomplishing little, and rarely, if ever, making an effort to change course. It’s also a choice to disagree and have no other vision forward in mind or a way to move the conversation toward vision.
7. Synthesize across disparate points of views in ways that improve the ideas put forward. In other words, when tension appears to arise between ideas, values, wants, and needs, it's useful to think about how they shape and inform each other, and maybe, when taken together, produce a third alternative. Surpassing tension requires synthesizing which is more cognitively and emotionally demanding. Synthesizing moves a team's idea generation beyond making both/and statements and naming co-existing contradictions. Synthesis requires taking parts of different ideas to form a new whole.
You’ll notice that each recommendation is rooted in transforming important features of an organization’s culture - shifting the culture of an organization to one that embraces coalition building as well as paying attention to power, community accountability, reducing systemic racism/sexism, and cultivating a healthy racial climate. It requires turning traditional diversity and inclusion approaches 180 degrees. If you're an organization/individual looking to enter. Come get some.
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Bio: Greetings, I'm Dr. Myosha McAfee, the Founder and CEO of The Equitect,™ LLC. I am no stranger to thinking scary big to undertake the most pressing issues of the 21st century. I help organizations unpack how their practices and policies may be reproducing racial inequities in-house, in plain sight. I curate expeditions for people in committed-to-equity-organizations to dive deep, face discomfort, surface biases and seriously grapple with institutional disparities.
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