Updated: Apr 1
I admit it. I have a slight obsession with learning. I constantly read books and listen to podcasts that expand my knowledge on issues ranging from anti-racism, cultural awareness, to social justice. Some days it's a fine line between productive and procrastination. That's why Emily McDowell's image made me laugh in acknowledgment and appreciation.
Understanding that equity is impossible until we address structural/systemic and institutional racism entrenched in our nation's history and culture is not the most exciting way to spend your free time. You are deliberately making yourself so uncomfortable it feels like you are dying. But we can't wait until people feel comfortable talking about racism to acknowledge the harm that is occurring every day across America.
Since March 2020, almost 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported, with women reporting twice as many as men. Of these incidents, more than 500 have taken place in just the first two months of 2021. The wave of discrimination and violence against the AAPI community is not new but it was galvanized by former president Trump's anti-Asian rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic. Hate-motivated murders rose to a record high in 2019 with 51 deaths, more than double the 2018 total. Latinx, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and Black people are the targets of many of these hate crimes. Furthermore, Black people are targeted more than any other group in the U.S.
Hearing stats like this is overwhelming, exhausting, and frankly unmotivating. If there is so much racial discrimination and violence in the U.S., how can we even make an impact? How can reading an anti-racism book, watching a PBS special, or following social justice advocacy groups really make an impact on the underlying system?
White folks have a tendency to intellectualize racism, to separate it from ourselves, as a way to acknowledge racism without accepting responsibility for our roles within these systems that explicitly or implicitly disadvantage BIPOC communities in favor of Whiteness. Reading an anti-racism book (especially if it's written by a White person), posting support for Black Lives Matter on Instagram, making a TikTok video expressing your views, or ranting on Facebook against your racist uncle isn't enough. What may help end racism is an education-based and action-oriented approach that uses the four levels of racism as a framework for change. We must learn the history and context of structural racism in the U.S. and listen to the lived experiences of individuals from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other communities of color.
Then what? You've worked on yourself but that doesn't dismantle the systems that have been in existence for hundreds of years. After you tackle the first level of racism, personal/individual, you have three more levels to consider.
Intergroup/interpersonal is the expression of racism between individuals when their private beliefs affect their interactions.
Institutional is the discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and practices, and inequitable opportunities based on race that produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for white people within organizations and institutions. Individuals within institutions take on the power of the institution when they reinforce racial inequities.
Structural/Systemic is when public policies, institutional practices, and cultural representations reinforce ways to perpetuate racial group inequality. It is a racial bias among institutions and across society.
Much of the work to dismantle racism at each of these levels relies on collaboration across groups and organizations. What's important to remember as you work to reduce power imbalances and inequity in your personal and professional spaces is that your comfort zones will be challenged, deeply rooted cultural norms will be questioned, and prioritizing the needs of nondominant communities will take precedence. There is no one "right" way to address issues at each level of racism. You can find numerous online resources which provide action-oriented tools to create institutional and systemic change in corporations, politics, schools, healthcare, police departments, and a wide array of industries. Here are a few:
Talem's Building an Inclusive Board Resource for nonprofits and their boards of directors.
The Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race & Equity's Advancing Racial Equity and Transforming Government Resource Guide to Put Ideas into Action.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Racial Equity Resource Guide Pre-made Guides for Media and Communications, Racial Healing, Research for Action, and Organizational Alliances.
The Aspen Roundtable's Structural Racism and Community Revitalization Project uses a critical structural racism lens to develop a current snapshot of the community, reflect on community change, and set visions for a racially equitable future.