Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Those of us active in volunteer and community service value selflessness and sacrifice in service of others. We consider ourselves kind, caring and compassionate. Many of us are energized by the very thought of inspiring change in someone's life or situation. These are the characteristics that spurn positivity in a toxic world. These characteristics counter the excessive greed and self-indulgence in our society. However, as positive as these attributes may be, they are also some of the reasons it is difficult to acknowledge our racism and implicit racial bias.
Racism and implicit racial bias are the filters that shade our view of the world. They are silent and invisible bacteria that infest an otherwise healthy agenda. Many of us do not realize we possess them. We think that we are too kind to be racist or that we are too generous to be racially biased. We even have friends who are Native, Black, Hispanic, or Asian! But kindness, generosity, and friends of color do not prevent racism or implicit racial bias, even in the best volunteers or community servants.
Implicit racial bias refers to the stereotypes, attitudes, and judgments we hold about a race of people. (We will save the debate around the validity of the category “race” for another conversation!) These are subconscious thoughts that influence how we engage the world and make decisions. At the time I wrote this post, the Anti-Defamation League defined racism as the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.
An unfortunate reality is that we have been led to believe that our racism and implicit racial bias are justified and warranted. Our environment may reinforce these subconscious patterns of thinking and behavior through manufactured narratives that paint racial groups with broad brushes. Too often we internalize these narratives without critical engagement or resistance. And without notice, we develop racist and racially biased lenses through which we interpret the world around us.
As one who influences people and processes toward optimization, racism and implicit racial bias undermine your efforts. Both are barriers to optimizing every noble goal. Whether your goal is to optimize impact, return on investment, or brand recognition, racism and implicit racial bias are threats to optimization. The exclusion or marginalization of a group of people based on socially-constructed and socially-reinforced factors, weakens the best optimization plan. If we want to see real optimization in our communities and organizations, or more specifically, in our lives, we must work to identify and dismantle the racism and implicit racial bias in us.
One place to begin is a reflection on your social circles. Schedule a few moments of your day to respond to the following questions:
What conversations do my social circles have about Native, Black, Hispanic, and Asian people?
What assumptions do I carry about various racial groups?
In what ways have I determined my Native, Black, Hispanic, or Asian friends are “exceptions” to my assumptions about their racial group?
How much better would the world be if I and my social circles were less racist or less racially biased?
For extra credit, schedule time to respond to a more difficult question, “What am I going to do about my responses to the previous questions?” And use continuous improvement methodologies to create your plan to identify and dismantle racism and implicit bias in your life with S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) measures.
Remember the words of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first African American candidate for President of the United States in a major party:
“You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
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R. Janae Pitts-Murdock is the Interim Senior Pastor at Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a PhD candidate in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. She holds graduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon University (MSPPM), United Theological Seminary (MDiv), and the University of Memphis (MBA), and a baccalaureate degree from the University of Michigan (BA).