Race Neutral = Institutional Racism

Welcome to 2017. I am welcoming in the new year with a heavy heart. A few days ago Al Sugiyama, a leader in Seattle’s Asian American community died after a fight with cancer. I didn’t know Al exceedingly well, but I learned so much from watching him over the past two years. He was a regular presence at the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC). When Al was there I knew, I was watching a master at work. Watching Al I learned how vocal, and at times gentle, we must be in standing up for communities of color. Al would speak pointedly and plainly to whomever the guest speaker was. No matter if it was the Police Chief, Superintendent of Schools, or a Department head, he would let them know the API community is here and growing, we are strong, and we must be taken seriously. He was also gentle in his own pointed way. He coached many of us by reminding us to show up and take our work seriously – show up on time, dress appropriately – no jeans, you never know who you might run into, speak up and call BS for BS, and to fight the fights that need to be fought. Above all be proud of belonging to the API community. Thank you, Al – you will be missed.

Stop the Race Neutral/Blind Processes

8e4246cf01dfee75d266ae6565e6a9a8Over the holiday break Heidi and I were emailing each other, one of the topics we delved into was why race neutral approaches need to end.

Before the break Heidi joined me in a budget presentation my organization hosted to learn more about the looming budget cuts facing the school district. The cuts will be huge and have an impact on every student and educator. Even though Heidi was a participant, she dropped some serious knowledge reminding us the tools used to develop the budget and the way the meeting was formatted come from a dominant culture framework. We were speaking in English and with baseline knowledge of budgeting processes – automatically these tools or modalities benefit some in the room more than others. English speakers can participate faster than non-English speakers and those who understand budgets and have knowledge about the school district are also able to participate more fully. Our job was to slow down and help everyone understand the meeting and participate fully.

As we listened to the budget presentation it became clearer we needed to push for transparency in who will benefit by the decisions made. Decisions made without thinking about race benefit white people. Systems default to preserve the status quo, which currently benefits white students. The status quo hurts students of color, it allows decisions to shift funding, resources, and voices away from who needs it the most. It isn’t good enough to have isolated efforts targeting and looking at racial equity, we need to actively work to embed race conscious decision making into every decision point.

Race neutral processes happen when we don’t think, talk about, and document who will benefit from a decision, a practice, or a policy. Race neutral or race blind processes perpetuate institutional and systemic racism. It is easy to use the words and say “We ran this through the equity filter,” like we’re running something through the dishwasher or the coffee filter – input in, equity out. It isn’t that easy. An equity filter or using an equity lens takes deeper analysis and work to understand.

Racism Isn’t New, Fight Racism by being Conscious of Race

Racism and its ilk (e.g. sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.) aren’t a new phenomenon. It is so tightly ingrained into our systems and ways of thinking we operate in it everyday. Mainstream and dominant culture doesn’t actively teach against these principles. We are taught about the civil rights movement, we celebrate heroes and holidays, but we aren’t taught to sniff out and spot fakequtiy and racism. When we call these things out we’re often slapped down and told to leave things alone – preservation of the group and the system requires us to ignore racism and things that make people uncomfortable.

A race conscious approach requires us to acknowledge racism exist in our organizations AND it is our jobs to actively undo institutional and systemic racism. It is ok to feel like crap when realizing we work in and may even be perpetuating racism in our work. What isn’t ok, is to ignore it and to continue working like normal. We need to acknowledge racism exist in our work and to use a race conscious approach to changing things to drive towards more racially equitable solutions.

How to Have a Race Conscious Approach

To undo institutional and systemic racism, we must talk about who race and power dynamics. After our budget meeting I talked to a few of my coalition partners of color. One partner threw his pen on the table and said “I’m so frustrated, the decisions have been made. What do they want a rubber stamp from us?” Another partner had a similar sentiment saying students of color and the schools they attend are already under resourced so simply ‘holding the line’ isn’t enough to make gains.

Power shows up in situations such as this when we allow white echo chambers to make decisions for people of color. As Heidi pointed out at the start of the budget meeting the tools we use dictate the results we get – the budget is written in English, those with the ability to advocate easily and effectively are heard and prioritized in the budget, technology is used to share information (who has access to technology, don’t give me the bull-shit story everyone has smart phones – no they don’t), etc. A race conscious endeavor forces us to look at who we are hearing from, what are we doing to diversify voices, and to think about racial outcomes of the overall system.

Communities of color need to start demanding transparency in who is benefiting from decisions made. We also need to critically analyze decisions to determine if they are right for our communities. Too often white advocates will say a decision is based on ‘equity’ but it benefits white children more or the opportunity cost (i.e. money/time/resources spent on one ‘equitable’ action prevents greater gains in other areas) is too great.

Students of color can’t wait for the ‘right time,’ ‘right conditions,’ or wait for seconds. We need to start demanding systems think about long term outcomes and use a race conscious approach, anything less is fakequity and reinforces institutional racism.

Posted by Erin