The Effects of Structural Racism are NOT Normal

That’s Not Normal, Stop Thinking it Is

Last night I had a dream-not-quite nightmare, I was in a work meeting with all-white people. I remember the feeling of anxiousness and being afraid of the group. I also dreamt I was holding a baby, but as it turns out I really was holding my not-baby-baby; she has sneaked into my bed and was trying to ‘snugga’ (snuggle). As I was holding the dream-baby I tried to make sense of this all-white people meeting and what they were talking about; I gave up and just held the baby awkwardly and in real life fought for more space on the pillow. In the dream, all the white-people were ok with being in an all-white people meeting.

The feeling of wondering why everyone else was ok to be at a meeting of all-white people is what Heidi (of the Fakequity team) describes as a byproduct of structural racism. We often don’t think twice about why whiteness pervades our society and we’re conditioned to accept and normalize it.

20171020_084046.jpgAs an example, last month I went to the Board Source Conference. They made a big deal about talking about diversity and race in the opening session, provided scholarships to cover the cost of attending to local leaders of color from organizations with budgets under $500,000 – our nametags publicly declared our charitable acceptance by saying “Scholarship,” and they featured sessions talking about race. Yet even with all of this, it was still a conference geared towards white people. The subtle signs and legacy of structural racism were prevalent. I sat through a plenary session with an all-white speaker panel. Many of the sessions were race-neutral or when the speaker introduced race it sounded like an unexplored afterthought. Few others at the conference seemed to notice these signs. Jondou (also of the fakequity team) calls it “knowing what you know what you don’t know.” Most people at the conference didn’t know the conference was catering to whiteness.

Another example is too often Native Americans are left out of data presentations and few stop to ask why. Because of structural racism towards Native American, they have become data-invisible. This effect of structural racism shouldn’t be normalized, instead, we should call out why we aren’t including Native Americans in the dataset, even if it is to report zero participation. By making a small shift to include the race category of Native American/ Indigenous and seeing n/a or zero reminds us we have a responsibility to change the results from zero to something more representative of the community.

Whiteness Isn’t Normal

We’ve been conditioned to believe whiteness is normal. In Melody Hobson’s TED Talk she says “…imagine if I walked you into a room and it was of a major corporation, like ExxonMobil, and every single person around the boardroom were black, you would think that were weird. But if I walked you into a Fortune 500 company, and everyone around the table is a white male, when will it be that we think that’s weird too?”

Whiteness isn’t normal, it is the offspring of structural racism. Part of this legacy of structural racism is a complacency and acceptance into thinking whiteness is normal. Heidi provided these examples of ways structural racism is normalized or excused: “There aren’t enough teacher of color,” segregated communities because of red-lining housing practices, board and leadership of organizations that aren’t diverse, elected bodies that aren’t representative of the people they serve, city and street names honoring white people versus using indigenous names for areas, etc.

Structural racism holds down people of color by normalizing whiteness. My wicked smart colleague Paola Maranan taught me: “Racism is always self-correcting, it works to preserve itself.” Structural racism plays out in our systems is in accepting the status quo, continuing business as usual, and not questioning why things are the way they are. We also tend to marginalize, silence, or label people who call out the need for change. The excuses sound like this: “we tried to find people of color but they aren’t qualified,” “it will take too long,” “that is too drastic a change, it is rocking the boat,” “we provided interpreters and went to their community but no one showed up.” When we let these excuses go it is allowing structural racism and a white-dominated system continue versus questioning what structures or activities were undertaken to get to different results. We have to train our brains to spot structural racism and we must be able to develop ways to call it out and correct the imbalance.

How to Do Better

Training ourselves to see the effects of structural racism isn’t hard, just start questioning everything. You may annoy your colleagues and even yourself, but after a while it works.

Ask Why – Somewhere in the vastness of the internet I read an article about asking why. The writer said to ask why three times. Why are those racialized results the way they are? Why do I feel funny about it? Why is that ok? It doesn’t have to be those three why questions but asking why several times forces us to dig deeper.

Train your brain to look for what is missing – Structural racism limits what we can see and what is presented to us. When we start looking for who is missing it is easier to see. Such as in my example above about missing Native Americans in data, start looking for who is missing and ask why don’t just accept the data as is.

Slow down — Slowing down is important in figuring out what doesn’t feel and sit right. In meetings and especially if you are facilitating, slow the meeting down to think. You can say “I’d like to check for understanding on ___,” or if I’m facilitating I may have people pause to think then write down or draw what they are thinking as a way to process and not just allow talking to happen.

Slow down and recognize people and land. In gatherings recognize the host of the meeting and say thank you for hosting the event, especially if being hosted by a community of color. Recognize we are on Native American land and say so.

Don’t be paralyzed, Take Action – Racism thrives on the status quo, inaction, and nuance or excuses. We have to actively work to correct what racism hands us, and we have to fix the systems that gave us those results. Sometimes these actions are making data corrections, being more inclusive and actively seeking new voices, or calling out what isn’t normal. Do something, don’t just allow things to stay the way they are.

Finally, keep learning and pushing your edge. We all have to keep learning about racism and how it shows up. For me I’m aware of some of my blindspots around things I don’t know. I know I don’t know a lot about poc disabilities and this isn’t natural it is because our society isn’t designed to be inclusive and we force people with disabilities to work harder to participate. My job is to learn more and not be ok with what dominant culture says is normal around disabilities. I have many other things I need to learn so stay tuned so you can learn with me too.

Posted by Erin Okuno, idea and examples from Heidi Schillinger. One day Heidi will have to write another post on this same topic from her perspective.

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7 thoughts on “The Effects of Structural Racism are NOT Normal

  1. M. Yaklin says:

    Honest question here as I’m trying to learn. I have trouble rationalizing statements like “whiteness is not normal.” 61% of our country identifies as white non-hispanic, 17% as Hispanic, 13% as African American, nearly 6% as Asian, and 1% Native American. So wouldn’t it be more surprising to see the entire boardroom of a major corporation as African American by simple percentages alone? I understand that the disparity in race and sex across our country is a huge problem, but it often times seems that articles like this continually want to make everyone hyper aware of race while at the same time trying to say it shouldn’t matter. You can’t do both. Yes we need to address the issues facing POC when it comes to availability of housing and wage disparity and access to services that will help remove them from being under-educated & underemployed. But then we see that Asian Americans (both male and Female) are the top earners of all races in our country. Again, I’m just inquiring to learn more and to be able to help, it’s just that I often get caught up in the language and what seems to be the “targets” of some of these movements

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    • jplund says:

      @ M. YAKLIN: Accepting your assertion that “61% of our country identifies as white non-hispanic”, the probability that a random group of 9 people (roughly the average size of a corporate board) would be all white is 0.61 to the 9th power, or roughly 1%. I do not travel in the such high flying circles myself, but I suspect that more than 1% of such boards are all white, and that many more have only a token “person of color” to fulfill in some diversity objective.

      The reality in our society today is clear: in the corridors of power, white is the normal color. (Obama was a startling exception, and an alarming backlash has developed in response.)

      I do not particularly like the phrase “not normal” as a description of the current situation. I considered suggesting “unnatural” as an alternative, but history shows that it is all too natural for human society to be organized with one group, the conquerors, at the top of the hierarchy. However, institutional racism is contrary to both the founding principles of our democracy and the moral teachings of our religions. There is no reason to acquiesce to things as they are.

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  2. fakequity says:

    M. YAKLIN thanks for being open to learning and a conversation. To reiterate whiteness isn’t normal. As a country and society dominant culture (whites) have normalized whiteness through actions that today we call institutional and systemic racism. The demographic data you shared is the way it is because powerholders, whether government or others have excluded or included certain race groups to suit their own needs. If we look at historical data and look at immigration trends we can see which race groups were given access to the country. Housing data shows how people of color were forced to live in certain communities which concentrated whites and pushed out people of color.

    No where in the article does it say race doesn’t matter. If anything I argue the opposite, race does matter. Race matters if we want to undo systemic racism.

    JPLUND: yes the corridors of power are currently white, and no Obama wasn’t the exception. Believing he is an exception negates the premise that a line of white presidents isn’t natural. A line of all white leaders of any sort is not normal and is produced by systemic racism.

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    • jplund says:

      Your premise is that institutional racism is not natural. Throughout human history, multi cultural societies were organized with one ethnic group at the top. Unless all of these societies were unnatural, your premise is false.

      Obama was an exception. Hopefully, he will be seen as the first of many, but that is far from certain.

      Here is my statement of the premise: institutional racism is contrary to both the founding principles of our democracy and the moral teachings of our religions. This I believe to be true, but it speaks to our ideals, not to what is normal.

      We must fight the hypocrisy of a society that falls so far short of its own ideals. However, labeling things “not normal” or “unnatural” fails to acknowledge how extraordinary our goal is.

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      • fakequity says:

        I see where you are coming from, and if we look at the history of our country and how systemic racism shaped things it created the situations we are in now. For further reading pick up the book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi.

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  3. Cherylee Flowers says:

    The lack of American Indian data is due to Native American Tribes which are sovereign nations, have taken control of their data. They can choose to release it to the general public or not. Too many times their data has been collected, analized and interpreted from a White point of view and without the American Indian input. There is a lack of trust and will need time to rebuild the trust, especially with Universities and government entities collecting data.

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