Monday, July 27, 2020

On Structural Racism

Structural racism, also known as systemic or societal racism, is more deeply entrenched in our working culture than you think.

A quick google search on the definition of structural racism gives us the following:

"A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with 'whiteness' and disadvantages associated with 'color' to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist." [1]

This brings us to the point of this article: we need a revised definition for structural racism—one that hones in on what it is and how it affects people of color. While the above definition is effective in broadly describing structural racism, it suffers from lack of specificity. What "public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms" are most damaging in terms of perpetuating whiteness in working spaces?

In my experience, structural racism is often spawned from people's lack of empathy and understanding. We must therefore rethink structural racism to highlight the role that empathy plays in fostering workplace equity. This will allow us to call attention to normalized institutional practices that have profoundly negative effects on people of color.

For the purpose of this article, then, I will be discussing structural racism both with the above definition in mind, and with the understanding that it often functions as an institutional bias wrought from lack of empathy towards members of that institution, being especially characterized by people in power, often white, negatively impacting the lives of people of color via a willful inability to understand the problems they face.

Because predatory lack of empathy runs rampant and is often waved away as a form of "institutional tradition" or as a "rite of passage" enacted upon junior members of the institution, it stubbornly survives efforts to purge structural racism via "diversity and inclusion" initiatives. Ironically, such initiatives are often enacted by people who are enablers of predatory lack of empathy, and held up as excuses for not making real institutional change.

What does this kind of structural racism look like? Let's examine a series of fictional scenarios reconstructed from real situations experienced by people I know.

Scenario #1 - A superior offers you the opportunity to travel abroad to work at a sister company for three months. The goal is for you to acquire new skills that might lead to a possible promotion later down the line. Unfortunately, this trip would only be partially subsidized by your company, meaning you would have to pay for travel and living expenses. Further, your salary would be cut in half while abroad. When you decline this opportunity, citing a lack of ability to fund the trip and the need to pay rent and other expenses, your superior responds angrily, imploring you to take the opportunity lest you risk never ascending further in your company. Unable to show empathy towards your situation, your superior sees your declination as an insult, as from their perspective they were offering you an opportunity. 
Scenario #2 - You're a graduate student struggling to make ends meet. In a meeting with your adviser you admit to being unable to progress with your research because you've been forced to take on extra work to supplement your income. Your adviser rages at you, saying things like "we pay you enough to pay for rent and essentials, you shouldn't be doing all of this extra work." Rather than put themselves in your shoes and try to understand your perspective, your adviser is unable to view things from outside the bubble of their graduate school experience, which was much better funded than your own. Your relationship with your adviser grows increasingly worse until you are forced to leave the program.
Scenario #3 - You are part of a company that is making a concerted effort to be more "diverse and inclusive." Unfortunately, little progress has been made. The problem, you suspect, is the fact that the diversity and inclusion initiative is run by people who are unable to understand the plight faced by people of color. Worse than that, these people have been known to be some of the worst perpetrators of microaggressions in your company, making disparaging remarks about various minorities and waving away criticisms with comments like "people of color love me, I'm big in their communities." Ironically, your company's effort to become diverse and inclusive makes things more divisive than they were before. 
Scenario #4 - You are a junior employee at a longstanding institution with a history of structural racism. Recently you had a company-wide meeting to discuss these systemic issues, but was dismayed to find that your superiors reacted defensively to people's critiques. Rather than try to modify how they act, they complained that "their jobs are difficult too," and that you cannot expect them to be able to fix all institutional disparities on their own. In the end, nothing is done and structural racism persists.
Scenario #5 -  You're a teacher at a suburban elementary school. One of your administrators proposes incorporating an ethnic studies curriculum that would be taught across all grade levels. You strongly support this, but face resistance from colleagues who argue that, because their classes consist mainly of white students, it is pointless to teach them ethnic studies. Because they outnumber you severely, no progress is made in revising the curriculum and your students continue to learn nothing about America's history of slavery, colonialism, and racism. 
Scenario #6 - Your company has mandated that everyone take virtual courses on fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, such courses are vague and tend to shy away from directly discussing the issue of race, focusing more on how to have "a diversity of ideas." They are also constructed in a way that assumes the viewer is white, with most of its examples and scenarios built around the question "what should a white employee do in this situation?" These problematic online courses take the place of actively attacking the problem of racism in the workplace, meaning that, functionally, nothing changes.
Scenario #7 - You work at a retail store and write to your manager arguing that the workplace lacks diversity. Specifically, you cite how all of the employees involved with directly interacting with customers—including cashiers, supervisors, and managers—are white, while the floor workers and warehouse crew are people of color. In your mind, it isn't enough for the supervisors and managers to take training courses on racism, there needs to be equality with regard to the demographics of leading roles in the company. Your manager takes your letter as an insult to his ability to understand the issues of people of color, and responds by cutting your hours and playing favorites with those who commend him for the solutions you critiqued. You are soon forced to quit as word spreads and you become further ostracized by your manager and the supervisors under his command.          
In all of these scenarios, lack of empathy mixed with an inability to understand other people's problems allowed for the persistence of regressive institutional practices. Some might ask "well, what is racist about these scenarios, as these could affect anyone who is not in a position of power?" And this is a valid question. The reason why these scenarios constitute structural racism is because the institutions that practice these kinds of abusive power-relationships are usually ones that have historically been majority-white.

That is to say, the lack of empathy demonstrated in these scenarios often negatively impacts people of color more than other demographics, in effect making it a racist mentality. Further, because white people more frequently come from families with more entrenched wealth, or with more connections and institutional knowledge, they are less impeded by these structural problems. 

In effect, lack of empathy perpetuates structural racism, allowing the current system to reproduce itself ad-infinitum. Until we accept this, we won't be able to make much progress towards building a more diverse and inclusive workplace.


[1] Definition taken from the first Google result for "define structural racism":