Some of you are like me. You grew up poor and were raised by a woman far stronger than you feel you could ever be. You might have even grown up in Kentucky with me, when our state ranked among the highest in poverty and the lowest in education. Next to us in those schools were Black, Latinx, Asian, and other people of color. Some were the first in their families to be born in the United States. Many of them were our friends. We attended classes, played sports, and sat with them in the cafeteria with our free lunches while wearing our hand-me-down clothes patched by hand.
Racism under such circumstances is a difficult concept to understand. It didn’t seem like race distinguished us from others. It was money, connections, and opportunities. Few of us had them. Those who did were usually white. We didn’t notice that because we didn’t identify with them.
It has shocked and offended many of us to consider ourselves “privileged.” We weren’t like them, and we’re still struggling.
We don’t feel privileged, but feelings are not a reliable test for reality. Our brains play tricks on us all the time.
The institutional racism has always been there. We don’t usually notice or question it when we are benefiting from it. We see it when it’s in our way. Or when it hurts someone who we care about.
The Black Lives Matter movement gave your minoritized friends a space to tell stories they were too afraid to share before. You have been horrified and enraged by the injustices they’ve endured. You relate to their trauma, even if you can’t fully understand their experiences. But what can you do? You feel powerless to make the substantial changes you believe are necessary. You aren’t a lawmaker, CEO, or even a hiring manager. And silence is violence? Dear, God! No! You aren’t a violent person. You want to help.
There are many ways you can dismantle the racist institutions.
First, you must identify them. We know that certain laws, rules, and practices have racist origins. Criminal laws and zoning regulations once had explicit race provisions. Although explicitly racist aspects might have been removed, the processes that stemmed from them haven’t changed much. Similarly, employment, health care, and education practices continue to have disparate impact due to racist foundations.
We might hear the n word less frequently from the mouths of white people, but other terms replaced it. What was once overt discrimination is now more covert. You know that “welfare queen”, “pimp”, and “gang banger” are all code for Black in many circles.
In the workplace, the terms “unprofessional” or “low-class” have been used to exclude minorities. This does not mean every time those terms are used that they are racist. I’ve been called them, too. But the intent is often to diminish and dismiss Black candidates or employees without getting sued for discrimination. Fortunately for the victims of discrimination, the EEOC, NYSDHR, and NYCCHR can often see using an employer’s use of code words and phrases.
It’s getting harder for all of us to claim ignorance.
Structural or systemic racism might present itself more subtly today than in America’s past, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still here. It’s time to make a change. That change begins with pure intention. Courage, intention, and consistent actions are what cause momentous changes (see Atomic Habits and Talent is Overrated).
We must do some deep soul searching first and accept that it’s going to be uncomfortable. Nevertheless, this is where we must begin. Again.
- Don’t stop with one Black friend and think you know enough about the Black experience. One person does not represent an entire group of people.
- Ask more questions and listen for the hurts you can heal. You can’t heal every hurt, but there is something you have the time, money, energy, or expertise to relieve.
- Look for top-down and bottom-up solutions. Go to town halls, school board meetings, and other places where people are discussing solutions. Protests and books are great for creating awareness, but we have awareness now. It’s time for solutions at every level.
- Speak up when you see changes that can be made, regardless of how small. Sometimes the change is in a policy. At other times, it’s in an individual’s behavior.
- Develop your persuasion and sales skills. Demands aren’t typically accepted without resistance and might be best reserved for times in which there is a danger of imminent harm. Most of the time, you will need to sell decision-makers on a potential solution, which means you will need to know how it could be executed and toward what desired result.