Break Some Rules

Picture: Scrabble game tiles spelling: RULES, on a window sill. Photo by Joshua Miranda on

A few truths or at least common beliefs:

  1. Rules are made to protect the institution
  2. Rules are often made to maintain the status quo
  3. Rules are often used to control, police, against one group or another, often to maintain white control or dominance

Understanding these truths, it is very hard to achieve racial equity within this framework. In order to get to racial equity we need to break some rules.

Yesterday I was listening to a friend, Katie – a white ally, talk about how she operates within a dominant culture system. Paraphrasing she said she knows in her leadership position she needed to break some rules if she wanted to see changes that promoted racial equity. Working within the current system and with the current rules, it allows racial inequities to flourish. If she wants to see different results she needs to break the rules and norms.

I asked my friend to tell me more about how she breaks rules and still has a job, cause let’s be honest, it is a skill set to know how to break rules for positive results and still maintain employment and a positive reputation. She shared the following insights, that might be helpful for all of us.

First, when I say rules, it doesn’t always have to be a defined rule. Such as within my organization, we don’t have a lot of hard and fast rules to break. What I have broken to achieve different results are practices. Some of the rule-breaking has been, testing new theories or taking on new programs to try new ways of doing thing. By doing this we broke the previous ‘rule/practice’ of inaction.

Know which rules to break and how to break them. Another friend and mentor and elder (she is a baby elder) Paola has a saying: You need to play the game to learn the rules of the game. You need to be in the game to change the game. And you need to get out of the game before it co-opts you.” Apologies to Paola for not getting her brilliance totally right. If you’re going to break some rules, you have to understand of what the rules are so you can figure out which rules have the right leverage in order to achieve the desired results. Choose carefully.

“Is that the hill you want to die on? Cause you’re gonna die on it.” – Katie

My friend Katie tells this to colleagues when coaching them on rule-breaking. Are you sure breaking that rule is the one you want to break, cause if it fails it is your job on the line. Stepping back and figuring out if breaking a particular rule is worth it is an important part of leadership. Are you willing to take a stand and say “Yes, this is the hill to die on.” Sometimes it is ok to re-analyze and say, “Nah,” sometimes following rules and playing the long game to slowly change the system is ok too.

“Are you going to have my back?”

Breaking rules or trying new things can be lonely. Going against the known and social norms is hard, but necessary to achieve different results. For leaders of color, this is even harder to do and more lonely because as a society we marginalize and don’t back leaders of color as much as we do white people. When a white leader breaks a rule and it works they are seen as trendsetting, a maverick. When it doesn’t work many people just shrug and move on. For leaders of color if they fail the consequences are higher and there isn’t as much forgiveness for bucking the system.

This is where we need white allies to have POC’s back and say, “I got you” and to validate the risk-taking with superiors. Maybe that is saying “Let’s try it together” and you put your own job on the line at the same time. Speak up and say, “I think it is worth trying.” Maybe it is being the first to volunteer to go along with the new way of doing something. And give credit where it is due, if the risk-taking works, be sure to give credit to the leader of color for trying something new and do it publicly.

As you break your rules, make sure to do it for the right reason and to achieve the right results. The rule-breaking has to benefit communities and people of color. If it doesn’t you’re promoting more of the same; just let those rules be. I remember years ago a white mom was complaining that the local public pool had a rule if you wanted to sign up for private swim lessons you needed to show up on a certain date, stand in line, and sign up in person. This white mom was upset at what she called an antiquated system of registration. A Black mom pointed out that her privilege was showing. The white mom wanted the system to break and change for her benefit so she wouldn’t have to take time off work to stand in line. The Black mom pointed out that the rules/norms developed because many of the people standing in line knew how to register for swimming in person, not online. They lived in the neighborhood and it was fairer for them to stand in queue than compete for an online spot. The white mom wasn’t having it, but the example shows how important it is to know who you’re breaking the rules for.  

Why I wrote this: Coming up with new ways of working is important to changing systems.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.