Many white people with a genuine desire to be effective allies to colleagues of color and to dismantle racism in their personal and professional worlds quickly become frozen by fear and uncertainty. Concerned about unintentionally causing harm, or embarrassing themselves, they stay quiet on the sidelines when they are most needed at the center of the action.
Personal introspection and self-education are powerful first steps to build your understanding of the role of unearned privilege, and how to invest your own social capital in driving change.
Systemic and personal
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the social unrest and increased focus on racism that followed was a wake-up call for many white Americans who had assumed our society had progressed further in creating equity for all people than it actually had. Sales of books about race increased up to 6,800% following Floyd’s murder according to data from NPD BookScan. Sales of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism
, led with a jump of more than 2,000%. Many people want to better understand how racism persists and most want to know how to help combat it.
“One of the best places to start is by exploring your own reasons for interest and engagement in diversity, equity and inclusion,” explains Deanna Singh, author of Actions Speak Louder
, business consultant who helps clients create more equitable and inclusive work environments, and recent WFF speaker.
Growing up with a mother who is African American and a father who was born in India and is a Sikh American, Singh’s parents welcomed recent immigrants into their home to help them find their footing in their new country. She recalls growing up with a profound appreciation for the “fusion” of foods, languages, cultures and traditions that characterized her home. “I know what it feels like when you create spaces where people feel included and can really grow, and how fully understanding the practical implications of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) can help organizations and individuals thrive.”
An inside job
While a growing understanding of racial injustice often prompts people to rush toward problem-solving, the best first step is often diving further inward to explore your own biases.
One way that biases continue is that we tend to use past information to predict the future. That works in many situations; if you see gray clouds overhead, you can often predict it will rain. But using past information to predict the future can also further ingrain biases rooted in discrimination, prejudice and a lack of equal opportunity. For example, when most senior leaders are white men, our brains unconsciously associate white men with leadership roles and can struggle to see others as effective leaders too.
Eliminating biased thinking altogether is unlikely, but you can foster new experiences to help override biased beliefs and give your brain new ideas to draw on. Consider these suggestions from Singh and from faculty at the University of Madison who have developed a step-by-step approach to recognizing and reducing unconscious bias.
- Expand your experiences to diversify your thinking. While participating in marches and protests is one way to engage in racial justice work, Singh also strongly advocates looking at your current sphere of influence and daily practices for concrete avenues to expand your consciousness. “When you make room in your mind to think about the world in more inclusive terms and incorporate more diverse experiences into your daily activities, it can help you think in more expansive ways,” Singh advises.
Listening to podcasts, watching TV shows or movies or reading books that offer a new perspective can broaden your thinking. Even trying new foods from other cultures can diversify your thinking. “These simple practices help open the mind to connecting a broader range of people to a broader range of attributes, skills and roles,” Singh says.
- Use counter-stereotypic imaging. Imagining individuals who run counter to current stereotypes in varied roles helps train your brain to recognize new associations, according to information from the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley. “Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji uses positive images on her screen saver to counter unconscious stereotypes— images of people from far-flung places, or in unfamiliar roles — in an effort to rewire her associations,” according to GGSC.
- See people as individuals. Getting to know people of different races and ethnicities as individuals helps you separate group stereotypes from the huge variety that exists among individuals.
- Slow down. Giving your brain more time to process assumptions can be a powerful method of reprogramming. “You can check immediate reactions by slowing down, asking yourself probing questions and requiring your brain to be more specific about your thoughts and feelings toward someone,” Singh says.
“This work requires constant vigilance, attention, love and energy, but on the other side of the discomfort, questioning and pushing yourself, the rewards are significant,” Singh says. “From a richer personal experience to better performing teams and organizations, and a society that benefits from the full contributions of all members.”