Graham: Anti-racism training needed; make sure it’s done right

As businesses look to build inclusive workplaces, care is needed in how that training proceeds.

By Ciera Graham / Herald columnist

As many organizations have issued statements denouncing racism and expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and other social justice groups, many of them have also been forced to contend with and address forms of institutionalized hate and bias that pervade their organizations.

Many organizations are instituting anti-racism training to equip their employees and members with tools to foster more inclusive workplaces. It is hard to dismantle centuries of institutionalized hate and discrimination in a one-day training, and research shows that one-time corporate training programs do little to change the subconscious bias of employees.

Nonetheless, it’s important to note that statements of solidarity and the condemnation of discrimination are meaningless if it is not supplemented with intentional introspection of how organizational cultures continue to marginalize and relegate their most vulnerable employees and consumers to the margins. We cannot simply espouse workplace diversity as a sign of social progress; we must begin to interrogate the prevalence of unconscious bias, and how it is deeply ingrained in our institutions.

While I am no expert in anti-racism training, I like to think that my years of studying sociology in a doctoral program, and my identity as a woman of color have equipped me with the tools and knowledge to address the components necessary for an effective anti-racist training. While this list is not exhaustive, I have identified three important components to incorporate in training efforts and our own thinking.

Apply a racial power analysis: We fail as a country when we exclusively see racism as a culmination of individual acts and behaviors, while ignoring that racism is also embedded in systems, policies and practices. Racism can happen both at the individual and at the institutional level; we all have the capacity to be or act in discriminatory ways. Individual racism is harmful and dis-empowering, but to effectively contend with racism and dismantle it, we need to contend with power, and recognize who holds it, and who can weld it to their advantage.

Look at disparities in wealth: In 2016, the median wealth for Black and Hispanic families was $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, compared with white families’ median wealth of $171,000. Similarly, from our country’s founding, white men have made up most of its political decision makers. When we examine leadership roles among chief executives (CEO, CFO, COO), only 19 Fortune 500 firms are led by people of color, and only 21 of these companies are led by women, according to recent data. And almost 75 percent of Fortune 500 boards are mainly comprised of white men. While these examples show who has power in our political system — “C-suite” and those who have access to wealth — we can look at many other social structures and institutions such as news media, home ownership and our legal system, we will see that both people of color and poor people are poorly represented and both socially and economically disadvantaged.

When we use a power analysis, we don’t just see a good cop/bad cop interaction. Instead we view it through a lens where the powerful have access to means of communications, resources and authority to reinforce their prejudicial beliefs. Policies like qualified immunity are a prime example of how systemic power is maintained for representatives in law enforcement, and how harmful this can be when police officers act on their biases.

Failing to use a power analysis to understanding racism only provides an individual lens to see and recognize racism. We see an individual person making racist comments; and then we begin to discern that if the world had fewer racist people, we would be fine. When we only see racism through an individual lens, this leads us to identify individual solutions to solve racism such as “be nice to each other or show empathy.” Empathy shown to people of color without an acknowledgement of failed systemic policies and practices is an injustice itself.

Use anecdotal evidence with caution: In her book, “White Fragility,” Robin Dianglo sheds light on how arguments about race can turn defensive, argumentative and often anecdotal. As a social scientist, I utilize empirical research for insight on how racism manifests in different contexts and situations. This is not to say that anecdotal evidence or personal stories do not hold weight or validity, but we must be cautious of using individual stories to prove or confirm the presence or absence of institutional racism.

I also acknowledge that our country has had a troubling relationship with believing the stories of women and people of color; we can look at examples such as the Central Park Five, Anita Hill or Christine Blasey Ford. We should all be given the space and care to share our stories and experiences with racism, but facilitators need to be skilled at balancing personal accounts and stories from the audience with empirical data to demonstrate the prevalence of racism. Anecdotal evidence also lacks a power analysis and it does not highlight how people of color are disadvantaged as an aggregate and impacted by inherently racist policies.

Be cognizant of the harm that anti-racism training can do to people of color: I am sure there have been several people of color like myself who have sat in anti-racism training and have had to endure retraumatization. We have had to contend with the complex experience of being the only Black person in a predominately white workplace while participating in anti-racism training that can magnify our Blackness, cause harm, and render us and our feelings invisible.

For example, when we ask people to say and confront their biases, we also subject people of color to hearing them and exposing them to hate. Anti-racistm training is about enlightenment, and growth for everyone. We’re learning to contend with our own privileges and biases, but if we prioritize this discovery without also recognizing the importance of fostering a safe space for people of color as white people air their grievances, we’ve failed tremendously.

It is also extremely harmful to pressure people of color to share stories or testimonies of their experiences of racism in these discussions to confirm our claims about the prevalence of racism. When we pressure people of color to share their stories, we ignore the trauma that they must relive as they retell it. Additionally, we also fail to hold the majority accountable for confronting their own biases and contributing to the discussion. It is important that facilitators offer people of color spaces for refuge or retreat when discussions are had that threaten their safety and security. Facilitators also need to be OK with people of color who opt to be silent; and please remember that our silence when discussing racism does not equate to disengagement, but it can be a way for us to protect ourselves and our psyche.

We are now in a pivotal time in American history where business leaders need to be courageous and unapologetic; show the world that diversity and equity are important to your bottom line and protecting your brand. Anti-racism education is not easy and there are many failed and mediocre attempts, but we cannot succumb to inaction. Inaction is a form of injustice.

Follow Herald columnist Ciera Graham on Twitter @CieraGrahamPhD.

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