The Racism You Didn’t Know You Had

By this point you’ve read about, or watched in horror, the killing of George Floyd and as you did so, other names sprang to mind: Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and far too many others. You support, or even take part in, the peaceful protests occurring around the world.  You know the history of legally sanctioned racism in America—Dred Scott, Jim Crow, redlining, and so on—and you’ve seen the data on its lasting effects. The disparities between Black Americans and White Americans in the criminal justice system as well as health, wealth, and virtually every other measure of attainment have been laid bare. You know structural racism is real and want to see it dismantled. 

You watch as another video of a white person asserting their power and privilege to exclude people of color from social spaces by calling the police goes viral. This happens often enough lately that the “Karen video” seems to have become its own genre. You’re a little shocked when you see these. You know the real danger they create as you recall an earlier “Karen” by the name of Carolyn Bryant, the woman who falsely accused Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy of threatening her. You know that individual racism is real and abhor the thought of it.

You sympathize with racial and ethnic minorities for the injustices they’ve experienced. You firmly believe in racial equality and are willing to work toward achieving it. You consider yourself fair and unbiased in your personal and professional life. You’re careful when around others, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, and do your best not to say or do anything that might be offensive. Sure, you sometimes feel a little uncomfortable around some racial and ethnic groups, or maybe you’ve taken implicit bias training and know you have some unconscious biases. Still, you are not a racist and for someone to suggest you are would be outrageous. 

This collection of characteristics was identified more than 40 years ago and labeled “aversive racism.”  Since then, researchers have used it to demonstrate how well-intentioned people who do not consider themselves racist engage in interactions that ultimately harm racial and ethnic minorities in healthcare, education, the legal system, and employment. It is one mechanism linking implicit bias to subtle and covert racist acts. 

The aversive racism paradigm makes it clear that maintaining a non-racist self-image is paramount, even if it operates outside of awareness. This is particularly troubling in the workplace for several reasons. Maintaining a non-racist self-image can lead people to overlook racism when it occurs. Take the example of microaggressions. These are often explained away either to ourselves (when we don’t confront them) or to others when we say, “he didn’t mean it that way” or “he didn’t know it was inappropriate.” People go to great lengths to deny racist behavior on the part of themselves or their organizations, and instead look for non-racist explanations. This can, for example, be heard when organizations claim to have objective hiring procedures and explain that the lack of diversity within the organization is due to a “pipeline problem”. Attributing the problem to these alternative non-racist causes prevents an organization from improving its staffing and other human resource management practices that reproduce inequality. Denial of racism also stands in the way of efforts to improve diversity and inclusion. It can prevent people from attending diversity and inclusion training or prevent them from benefiting from it when they do. 

Despite the rather bleak implications here, there are important bright spots. The good intentions of aversive racists can be leveraged to motivate real and sustainable change. The implicit biases that lead to aversive racism are malleable. The need to maintain a non-racist self-image can be acknowledged, rather than denied or used to rationalize our own attitudes. At the same time, we can continue to develop a more authentic, non-racist identity. By disrupting these processes, we can begin to alter our own behaviors, as well as the systems within organizations that prevent them from being diverse and inclusive.

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Nathan Odige