systemic racism

The topic of systemic racism is flooding our inboxes, news streams, and social media. I personally have felt like I’m drinking from a firehose. However, even with the flood of information, I keep finding ways that I’ve behaved in the past that were problematic. Moreover, I keep uncovering the ways I want to change.

Despite being overwhelmed with the work required to make a difference with systemic racism, I’m trying to dive in. I’ve decided to share bite-size nuggets of information that might be helpful to leadership using my books and resources. We’re going to need millions of small actions to occur in our society if we want to create meaningful change. So, this is my attempt at just a few.

My first realization relates to the definition of racism itself. In the book White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, she explains the differences in the definition whites have used when explaining racism. If we believe racism only occurs when bad people intentionally hurt others because of their race, then we claim innocence. However, if instead, we understand racism to be a system into which we were socialized, perhaps we can open our minds to see our transgressions. I’m going to focus my writings on the system of racism, to which I’ve been socialized to accept and actively participate.

Microaggressions and names

Another term that I found helpful in understanding systemic racism is ‘microaggression’. This is explained as an instance of subtle and indirect, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to a target group, such as people of color, religious minorities, women, or other marginalized populations. A microaggression can be something as simple as a male supervisor using the term ‘sweetheart’ to his female assistant. It can also be as blunt as saying “I can’t pronounce your name, so let’s just call you Roger” to a black colleague.

One microaggression that may feel a little uneasy is name pronunciation. For those of us with names perceived as ‘white’, we assume we’ll be excused for mispronunciations of a name radically different than our norm. This is a microaggression. In the Psychology Today article about understanding name-based microaggressions, Dr. Ranjana Srinivasan, a psychology researcher states:

“There is a tendency for White European names and whiteness, in general, to be perceived as normative, whereas racial minorities with names of religious and ethnic origins may be seen as an inconvenience. This can result in experiences of discrimination and ostracism. Individuals with racially and ethnically distinct names often experience a mix of pride and discomfort in association with the use of their names.” 

Children will frequently adapt an easy nickname in order to fit in and make others feel more comfortable. What we need to realize, is that we are the ones with the discomfort. Moreover, others don’t need to change who they are in order to make us feel more comfortable. We can be better.

What to do

The article suggests the following when meeting someone with a racially or ethnically distinct name:

  • If possible, review the name and spelling first before meeting them. The more we are exposed to the diversity of names and ethnicities, the more normalized it becomes.
  • Ask them to tell you the correct pronunciation. Then repeat it back to them correctly.
  • DO NOT ask them if they have a nickname instead. You can ask how they would like to be referred to, but I’m a little hesitant about that as well. It might infer that they should have an alternative name. Unless of course, you ask everyone you meet how they would like to be referred to, no matter their ethnicity.

I would add:

  • DO NOT complain about needing to learn how to pronounce someone’s name. It’s demeaning.

I hope we can all open our minds and hearts to learn more about our history and how we got here. The socialization that’s occurred is real and invisible at the same time. I’m just doing my part to learn more.

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