Just Stop It With the New-Age, Hands-Off Approach to Fighting Racism
Call me naive, but by the start of 2021, I was still excited and waiting for the next phase of the anti-Black racism rollout and revolutionary initiatives that would call White privilege to the business carpet.
Instead, I saw many businesses and groups proceed straight to Whitewashing the movement. Their sorry and tired attempts to tackle social justice issues and anti-Blackness with milquetoast, middle-class approaches were and are both patronizing and offensive. And much worse — these half attempts at messaging both maintain White supremacy and insulate White privilege and fragility. Needless to say, I am far from impressed and want my bated breath back.
The downward dog, crystals, and aligned chakras will not address racism or convert a racist into a pillar for social justice.
While researching university and college-sponsored diversity talks and events for my students, I noticed a common trend: Whiteness. In your face, undeniable, unapologetic Whiteness — oozing from events and dialogue that were supposedly created to promote equity and inclusion. Some of these organized events even offered mindfulness, crystal and breath work, or meditation as examples of hands-off ways to fight anti-Blackness.
My thought bubble when I saw the flyers: Are y’all for real? I wish I were exaggerating, but sadly, I’m not.
Please don’t get me wrong. Mindfulness is a useful practice, but conflating the new age Eurocentric and class-centric interpretation and practice of this millennia-old “trend” just reeks of classism and frankly, is ineffective and highly problematic. The downward dog, crystals, and aligned chakras will not address racism or convert a racist into a pillar for social justice. Bigger than that, many of the events and topics that I’m seeing on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are reflective of middle-class perspectives and resources. Some required a fee despite the event being hosted online. Others reflected attitudes that were not universal to all populations — especially those who are disenfranchised and marginalized. Overall, this feel-good approach to social justice work minimizes the severity of the heinous acts of injustice and blatant hate that we have observed over the past seven months — actually, centuries. They also trivialize the profound trauma that people of color have endured at the hands of White supremacy, and in some cases, it’s even worse in corporate America.
Many businesses have long understood the relationship between diversity and their bottom line after being slammed with massive lawsuits for everything from racist watercooler jokes to blatant sexual harassment. The problem is that in the early 2000s, they rarely did anything about it except talk. But in the early 2000s, Morgan Stanley dished out $54 million for various discrimination lawsuits. Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch both had to pay the piper to the tune of $100 million for employees behaving badly and also sexually harassing their colleagues. In my father’s words, Morgan Stanley seemed to have a case of the “can’t help its” and had to double back to the courtroom later to pay another $46 million for a class-action lawsuit. In 2013, Bank of America Merrill Lynch settled a suit for racial discrimination for $160 million. Merrill’s total payout toward discrimination lawsuits totaled a whopping half a billion dollars over a 15-year timeframe.
While some companies, like various Wall Street firms, decided to avoid the potential for lawsuits by requiring that new employees sign an arbitration contract agreeing not to join a class-action suit, other companies took a less slimy approach. They implemented various diversity training programs. This was during a time when discussion about unconscious bias was the rage and acts of discrimination were conveniently disguised as odd behaviors that transcended our conscious awareness and that we had no control over. Diversity trainers quickly flocked to the topic like water to a well and companies began requiring their staffs’ attendance at these trainings. But some people began to notice that similar Whitewashed efforts made toward inclusion were ineffective.
In some cases, diversity issues actually worsened. Although unconscious bias is real and should be discussed, exploring unconscious bias — alone — is not enough when tackling issues related to discrimination and prejudice. Like the education system, this feel-good approach to diversity training, which relieves the onus of people being held accountable for their behavior, renders diversity programs and social justice work ineffective because these opportunities do not provide education on issues related to White supremacy nor space to honestly reflect on how daily behavior intentionally or unintentionally can maintain these systems.
Social justice efforts also become Whitewashed when companies and universities hire trainers from non-marginalized groups. Some businesses and schools would rather pay a White trainer to facilitate anti-Blackness training than to hire a Black trainer with equal or more experience. If the goal is to illuminate Black voices and to promote equity and inclusion, hiring a Black trainer is more closely aligned with this goal. Relatedly, diversity programs and training can be useful but are ineffective if those in power do not hold themselves accountable to the same standard. If a company requires that staff attend diversity training, but the executive leadership team continues to follow racist or otherwise oppressive internal business practices, or a college or university requires that students and staff attend a diversity event, but the college president is not required to do the same or restructure oppressive university policy — the training will fall flat. The result is the illusion of working toward social justice and advocacy when, in reality, no real progress has been made systemically. Let’s be clear, White supremacy exists in systems, but individuals perpetuate it.