I’ve Been Complicit In Systemic Racism. Here’s What I’m Doing To Change.
4 Actions Whites Can Take Today to Start Dismantling Systemic Racism
George Floyd was murdered on May 25th. In the nearly two months since then, I’ve spent long moments in deep sadness for Black Americans, and in embarrassment for white people and for our nation as a whole.
I’ve asked myself how such horrific racial injustice can possibly still happen in America in 2020 — and, as Michael Hyatt put it, why white Americans continue to allow it.
I’ve also asked myself how my own actions and attitudes have helped uphold our society’s systemic racism. I’ve looked for ways I can further raise my awareness so I can become a proactive part of the solution.
I’ve been reluctant to write on this topic until now because, frankly, I’ve felt sorely unqualified to do so. I’m a white male, after all, and (to my shame) I’m not well educated on this subject, formally or otherwise.
Even so, I now realize that my level of skill in writing about this is far less important than speaking up. Silence sends its own message — often a harmful one.
As a society and as a human community, we need to do better than this. We should’ve begun doing better a long time ago. But merely making this obvious statement is far from enough.
Four actions all white Americans can take today.
Here’s what I believe all white Americans can and should do, starting right now:
1. Wake up to the truth of systemic racism.
It’s long past time for us white Americans to open our eyes to the systemic racism from which we all benefit.
Don’t get defensive: I’m not saying that this is necessarily intentional. But the fact is that all white Americans derive benefit from living in a society that systematically rewards us just for having been born white.
If you take immediate exception to this statement, I can understand why. It’s not an easy idea to stomach. But instead of rejecting it, I’m asking you to give me the benefit of the doubt: analyze the facts below with a courageous and sincere heart, and draw your own conclusions.
Every single day, in countless ways we often don’t notice, we white Americans get patted on the back for our whiteness:
- Our wages are statistically higher than those of people of color.
- Strangers tend to rate our intelligence and attractiveness higher.
- Food, clothing and hygiene products targeted toward us aren’t kept in separate “ethnic” aisles.
- Authority figures are more likely to treat us as “innocent until proven guilty,” and give us more opportunities to justify our actions.
- Law enforcement officials tend to treat us more leniently.
- Our roles aren’t inherently defined in terms of race (e.g., our jobs aren’t called “white jobs,” nor our leaders “white leaders”).
- The color white itself is often equated with goodness (e.g., “a little white lie”), while black signifies evil (e.g., “black magic”).
- There are many, many other examples.
I’m only now beginning to see just how complicit I’ve personally been in America’s systematically racist society. While I’ve never intentionally treated anyone in a maliciously racist way, I have to confess that for virtually all my 57 years I’ve ignored and excused racism — or simply pretended it didn’t exist.
2. Stop defending and start “seeing.”
"The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”
— Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
Think about that for a minute. The terms “racist” and “racism” are such appropriately negative terms that many white people immediately blanch at the suggestion that we’re connected to racism in any way. It almost feels like being told we’re anti-American!
I’m just as guilty of this defensiveness as anyone. For many years I believed I was a “nice white person” because I “didn’t see race.” But the truth is that simply “not seeing race” does not reduce racial inequality. In fact, it’s often counterproductive to that very goal.
We need to stop insisting we’re not racist, and start taking time to learn what racism really is. We have to open our eyes to the false construct of race in order to recognize the discrimination it perpetuates. Only then can we begin to take concrete steps to counteract our unconscious racial biases.
Robin DiAngelo also points out in White Fragility that racism is not a matter of “nice people versus mean people.” Her definition of racism includes “the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color.”
Disagree with that definition? Then examine these numbers from a 2016 New York Times Magazine article:
- Ten richest Americans: 100% white
- US Congress: 90% white
- US governors: 96% white
- Top military advisers: 100% white
- President and vice president: 100% white
- US House Freedom Caucus: 99% white
- Current US presidential cabinet: 91% white
- People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white
- People who decide which books we read: 90% white
- People who decide which news is covered: 85% white
- People who decide which music is produced: 95% white
- People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95% white
- Teachers: 82% white
- Full-time college professors: 84% white
- Owners of men’s professional football teams: 97% white
These are the facts. Once we choose to set aside our defensiveness about them, we wake up to a powerful and distressing truth: racial segregation is still alive and well in modern America.
3. Walk the talk and connect authentically.
From my work leading and coaching Fortune 500 executives around the globe, and from my own self-examination, I know that our actions result from our intentions, which in turn result from our core values.
Many white people are aware of systemic racism yet choose not to acknowledge it because its implications are painful. But when we experience a gap between our espoused values and our actual behaviors, we experience dissonance because we’re not “walking our talk.” This causes us suffering that, sooner or later, we need to address head-on to resolve.
Closing that uncomfortable gap requires awareness of it. It requires us to notice the available alternatives and then take deliberate, courageous action to close it. That’s what’s known as doing the right thing.
Recently, with some trepidation, I asked a Black colleague about her feelings following George Floyd’s murder, the protests and the upheaval. She responded by telling me her story of racism in America. We talked for a good hour. I listened, acknowledged that I will never fully understand her situation, and tried to lend my sympathy and support anyway.
At the close of our conversation, she thanked me for “opening the door” to that conversation. She said she appreciated that I would care enough about her to ask.
Her response underscored for me how important it is that I get over my fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, and instead strive to connect with honesty.
My challenge to all white people, myself included, is to do the right thing and strive to make micro-adjustments to our racial thinking and behavior. It’s urgent. We need to start right now, at this very moment.
As Dana Brownlee writes, these adjustments can be as simple as getting to know more people of color, talking to your kids about race, mentoring a person of color, or calling a friend of color to discuss the current events of racial injustice.
No one person can turn the tide of racism alone, let alone overnight. But there’s no telling what change we can bring about when, in the collective, we take millions of tiny steps towards — and with — our brothers and sisters of color.
4. Collaborate and self-educate.
Over the past couple of months, virtually every call I’ve had with an American corporate leader has begun with a heart-wrenching conversation about social injustice in our country.
The great majority of white leaders have expressed horror and sadness at the state of racism in America during our calls — along with a strong compulsion to do something about it.
The (admittedly) few Black leaders I’ve talked with, meanwhile, have expressed both a sense of bone-deep weariness over racism, and a cautious hope that many white Americans are experiencing a long-overdue racial awakening.
Referring to the officer who stood by as George Floyd was murdered, Michael Hyatt said, “If we continue to accept the status quo, to allow this to go on, to stand by, as that other officer did, then we’re just as culpable in the murder of George Floyd. We cannot let this stand.”
I’m not equipped to offer a step-by-step solution, as I often try to in my articles. But I do believe that self-education moves us in the right direction. For example:
- Emmanuel Acho’s YouTube series offers heartfelt clear-cut advice to white people struggling to understand racism and how to build bridges between people of different ethnicities.
- Dana Brownlee wrote last month on ten actions white people can take to promote racial justice in the workplace and five uncomfortable truths Black colleagues need you to know.
- I’ve already mentioned Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, which offers a candid look at white people’s difficulty acknowledging our racism.
- How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi has been called “The most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind” by The New York Times.
This is only a small sampling, of course. You’ll find many more resources like these with a quick online search.
Here’s my call to action for you, right now, today.
Select one or more of the above resources and set aside time to study it and draw your own conclusions. I’m not saying they’ll be the same as mine, but you’ll undoubtedly emerge with a clearer picture of the facts.
This call to action applies not only to government and law-enforcement officials, but to every last one of us white Americans. Together we have the power to put an end to institutional racism in American society — if we collectively choose to do so.
“It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. It may not be in your time that there'll be any fruit. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
― Mahatma Gandhi