A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 5 - Avoid Common Pitfalls
Part of recognizing that fights for racial equity have always been happening is understanding why they stalled in the past. The complete answer is too complex for a document like this. Instead, here are some common pitfalls, challenges to watch out for. Again, these may not come from people who are actively hostile to the project of racial equity. Sometimes, they come from people who want the same ends but don't realize they are playing into the hands of institutionalized racism.
5 - A. Beware of delay disguised as information gathering.
Look out for calls to "gather more information," often through the avenue of forming a committee. We don’t need any more information about why change is necessary. We probably don’t even need information on what needs to change. Committees are only useful if they have clear authority and the explicit goal of implementing reforms. Information gathering is a favorite of people who would like to avoid structural, institutional reform. Though it sounds responsible and proactive, it often turns into foot-dragging.
5 - B. Beware of outside consultants hired to make recommendations.
Often, consultants are brought on not to discover wholly new information but to provide cover for decision-makers. Even if institutional leadership is sincere, the process of hiring a consultant, briefing them, and waiting for their research is another way an institution's immune system creates delay. Institutional leadership will be tempted to hire a consultant because 1) it seems like a concrete step in the right direction 2) it absolves them of responsibility and 3) they're confused and would like someone to give them friendly, professionally packaged recommendations. If leadership says they need a consultant to make recommendations for changes, this is really another way of saying existing voices within the institution are not credible. At most institutions, if you gave the person with the least authority a pencil, a piece of paper, and five minutes, they could come up with a list of problems and recommendations. In a sense, the solutions are already known. The question is whether there is enough will to implement them. This brings us to a caveat to this warning. It might be in your interest to bring in an outside consultant for the same reason leadership would -- to provide cover, to diffuse conflict by introducing an external, theoretically neutral party. Be careful and try to get as many of the following as possible:
5 - C. Beware of backlash.
There's not much to do about this except keep an eye out for it. Sometimes, people become overwhelmed when confronted with how deep institutional problems run. Unable to cope with this reality, they instead deny it and lash out at those who tried to lift the veil as troublemakers.
5 - D. Beware of training your way out.
Diversity trainings can be part of the solution, but they cannot be the whole solution. Handled poorly, they can even be counterproductive. Even expressly anti-racism trainings tend to address personal biases, but the core problems are structural, cultural in nature.
5 - E. Beware of tone policing.
Anyone feeling uncomfortable with how someone else is expressing their anger or frustration, should pause and try to empathize rather than correct. Recognize you probably know far less than you think. Recognize there isn't some objective best way to create change. Recognize standards of civility and professionalism are gendered, racialized, and designed to exclude. If you find yourself trying to police someone's tone, think about what you are doing. You would be forcing those who are suffering to argue and debate with you about how change should take place. You would be forcing them to spend their time, energy, and emotion arguing with you. While you may not realize it, you would be acting out the institution's immune response. Instead, reflect on who is and is not allowed to be angry. Reflect on whose needs are anticipated and addressed before anger becomes necessary.
5 - F. Beware of bad faith.
Most strategies about coalition building and consensus decision making assume people are interested in changing the institution. There may be some who operate in bad faith. It can sometimes be difficult to tell if someone is still learning how collective decision-making works so try to give as much benefit of the doubt as possible.
5 - G. Beware of co-optation.
Narratives about increasing diversity to achieve racial equity can be co-opted into efforts to increase “intellectual diversity” instead. I’ve heard people use the language of “marginalized groups” to center the experiences of remote office workers in the middle of a discussion about racial equity. One way (by no means foolproof) to combat this is being especially precise in saying exactly what the changes the meant to achieve and who they assist.
5 - H. Beware of other forms of bias that can creep in such as classism or ableism.
Be intentional about being inclusive in building the coalition. For instance, if you are a lawyer at a legal advocacy organization, have you included the paralegals or the administrative assistants?
5 - I. Beware of certainty.
It's good practice to be slightly mistrustful of anyone who is absolutely certain something will or won't work. The world is complicated and certainty is usually a sign someone is overfitting data. Consider why they might believe this, whether their individual experiences might be shaping this certainty.
5 - J. Beware of cosmetic changes.
Especially if a coalition has force of numbers , institutional leadership may be eager to appease. They will offer to take some concrete steps and might even do this out of a genuine desire to address racial inequity. But just because formal policies changed does not mean the situation has necessarily improved. Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional and yet our education system remains intensely segregated. Don't take your eye off what’s important. The question is whether the lived experience of marginalized folx improved, whether the culture of the institution changed.
5 - K. Beware of doing labor without commitment.
Members of marginalized groups are often asked to assist with implementing anti-racism measures. There is nothing inherently wrong wth this but be careful to do labor on an institution’s behalf only when there are concrete commitments to act. One reason for this is that if your coalition is strong enough for the institution to negotiate and ask for help, you are in a position of power because that means they need your labor and agreement more than you need them. Second, in certain cases, doing labor on behalf of an institution can even be counterproductive and be used as a defense mechanism against real, structural change. This is how it works. First, a coalition demands change. The institution signals their agreement that change is necessary and invites the coalition to work with them on finding a solution, perhaps through the formation of a joint committee. The members of the coalition on the committee end up doing a lot of emotional labor, assisting the institution to identify the problems. Recommendations are made and perhaps some superficial, small changes do occur but no structural, transformative change. When the institution is next questioned about their commitment to racial equity, they point to the work of the committee as evidence that they have been proactive and as a way to resist taking more transformative steps.