In May 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd erupted across the country, many organizations started becoming more aware of the need to challenge racism and to encourage racial equity in their own spaces. At Race Forward, this increased awareness became evident when inquiries about our racial equity training more than doubled.
Over the last few months, I’ve spoken to hundreds of organizations that have made a commitment to racial justice and now want to go through Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (JDEI) work and processes. We must recognize that this is usually only the first step in achieving racial equity.
In our many years of working with organizations, we’ve seen how racism persists even when staff are racially diverse or are given a seat at the decision-making table. While diversifying staff and leadership is critical, it doesn’t always ensure racial equity. Even when an organization is filled with well-intentioned people, racism often persists because our systems, policies, and practices continue to be racially inequitable. We need to move beyond our usual JDEI frame of thinking to truly transform our organizations to become more racially equitable.
In other words, the presence of people of color in our organizations does not automatically lead to racial equity, because racism doesn’t just reside in individuals. It also lives in our systems, institutions, policies, and practices. Racism is not just individual or interpersonal; it is also institutional and structural.
Structural racism refers to racial inequities across institutions, policies, social structures, history, and culture. Though a belief that only individuals need to change, not our systems and institutions, trains us to pay attention only to individual or interpersonal racism, the inequities of structural racism are symptoms of white supremacy, defined by the Meriam-Webster dictionary as “the social, economic, and political systems that collectively enable white people to maintain power over people of other races.” When we look at what’s reported in mainstream news and conversations, rarely do we hear about structural racism and the ways that it permeates our culture, policies, and practices.
It’s important for us to shift our attention towards structural racism so we can come up with viable, long-lasting solutions to systemic racism in our organizations and society. This shift in attention is a critical first step to doing racial justice work.
The way to address structural racism across institutions and policies is to do a systems analysis, which requires us to analyze the problem holistically to identify not just the racial disparities themselves, but the roots of those disparities. When we’ve identified the roots of a problem, an array of solutions is then revealed. Because structural racism is an amalgam of racist systems, policies, institutions, and practices, it takes an analysis at the systems level to bring to light solutions that are equally systemic.
A systems analysis of the disparity between the incomes of Black and white staff, for example, could reveal the racial wealth gap, antiblack narratives in popular media, or inequities in the education system to be at the root of this disparity. Once these roots are revealed, it becomes clear that our solutions must also address these roots if we’re to prevent this disparity from persisting or recurring.
There are many ways to do a systems analysis, but in general this type of analysis asks the following questions:
- What are the racial inequities? Who’s harmed and who benefits?
- What institutions and unfair policies or practices are involved?
- What are popular ideas, myths, or norms that reinforce the problem?
- How did things get this way?
- What are the key causes, contributing factors, or compounding dynamics?
- What are the cumulative impacts?
- What solutions and strategies could eliminate the inequities?
When we ask questions like these, we begin to look at the roots of racial disparities and to come up with systemic solutions.
Another approach to addressing systemic racism is to use a “race and…” approach: race and gender, race and immigrant status, and so on. A “race and” approach allows us to address race explicitly, but not exclusively. Or, in other words, we address race prominently and intersectionally, such that race is a complementary, rather than a competing, frame, as for example with environmental justice and racial justice, or reproductive justice and racial justice. Systems of oppression are inevitably connected to one other. We cannot address racism without also addressing sexism, the exploitative features of capitalism, and other ills. An intersectional approach expands our solutions and allows us to address the disparities experienced by individuals that follow from the multiple identities and experiences they carry with them.
When addressing income disparities in our organizations, for example, we have to address not only race, but issues of race and gender, race and class, and so on. This way, we can advance policies and practices that are truly just. A “race and” analysis will tell us that while there are disparities in the wages of men and women, there are further disparities between black women and white men. The policies and strategies we create and implement will need to account for these different levels of income inequities, which usually impact queer and femme staff of color the most.
Proactive, not Reactive
Finally, we recommend that organizations take a proactive stance when it comes to racial equity: creating systems, policies, and practices that are racially equitable before problems surface. Often organizations wait until harm or inequity is brought to their attention before diving into racial equity work. Reactionary solutions take more time and effort, and greater resources, especially when the harm we’re trying to address demoralizes people, which can lead also to the exodus of staff of color from the organization.
Proactive racial justice policies and systems prevent burnout and harm while creating racially equitable organizations where staff of color, along with everyone else, thrive and succeed.
As Training Strategy Director, Nikko Viquiera leads the work of ensuring strategic and political alignment of Race Forward’s training content, curriculum, and delivery across its departments. Nikko also manages the organization’s Affiliate Trainers Project, which has given expert racial justice trainers from across sectors and fields opportunities to work with organizations seeking to transform their institutions to become more racially equitable.
Nikko also responds to the racial equity needs of different organizations by providing training, coaching, and other organizational change processes. Under Nikko’s leadership, Training Strategy hopes to mobilize thousands of individuals and organizations to support and become part of the larger movement for racial justice, equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and capacity to advance racial justice in their institutions and communities.
Nikko was born and raised in the Philippines. Over the years, he has worked with social justice organizations involved in youth and education development, food and hunger justice, and disaster relief. He is passionate about event organizing, volunteerism, and activism almost as much as he is about great poetry and fiction novels. He enjoys books by Octavia Butler and Celeste Ng. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from the Ateneo de Manila University and a Master’s in International Development and Economics from Fordham University.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
Judith Smith says
I’m disappointed but sadly not surprised that you do not once mention disability in this entire article. Disability is intersectional across race, gender, orientation, class etc and if you’re not recognizing this you are not doing through Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (JDEI) work. Please educate yourself on disability justice and inclusion because we are the ignored minority.
Founder and Director Emerita AXIS Dance Company
Nahida Nisa says
Thank you for your comment. We always value input from our readers, and your perspective is an important one: I’ve sent you an email inviting you to submit an article on this topic for Blue Avocado. Do check your inbox and let me know if you’re interested! Thank you!