by Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, and Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R
In our last column, we talked about the Undoing Racism principle of Sharing Culture, focusing on organizational culture. We ended with a series of points that can move organizations to more inclusive climates and equitable practices. Strong leadership is needed to move an organization in this direction, and today we move to the next two principles: Developing Leadership and Maintaining Accountability.
Developing leadership that moves an organization toward antiracist multicultural practice requires (1) understanding the dominant culture, (2) redefining concepts of leadership to include diverse perspectives, and (3) maintaining accountability to communities struggling with racist oppression.
Approximately 82% of the non-profit workforce, and 86% of the members of boards of directors, are white (Lapovskey, 2009). These are the people who define leadership, and they tend to recognize leadership potential in others that resonates with their own values and experience. The skills and experience of people of color may not be recognized, and they may be passed over for promotion. In addition, leadership development with people of color can be squelched through micro-messaging and micro-aggressions.
Micro-messages are the subtle enactments of organizational culture that communicate what is valued—and what is not. American culture is full of micro-messages that affirm whiteness and devalue people of color. Social workers do it when we talk about a particular intervention, and then talk about how we might change this approach to be culturally competent. The micro-message is that there is one “normal” or correct way to do something; then there is the way we adapt “normal” to meet the needs of others who are outside of that group. Very subtly, we have labeled these others as not normal. Our colleagues who are part of those “other” groups get the message, loud and clear.
Microaggressions are the things that slap and sting, and can deeply injure. They are typically unconscious and unintentional (Sue et al., 2007), but communicate that people of color are alien and suspect. Microaggressions occur when we expect a person of color to represent all members of their group, as if it is a monolithic culture (i.e., “tell us how [racial or ethnic group] people think about” an issue); or create dress codes, implied or codified, that require Euro-centric hair and dress styles (i.e., dreadlocks or facial hair are unprofessional, head scarves create suspicion). Further, people of color often find themselves professionally isolated, excluded from formal and informal networks that provide access to promotion because they do not fit in the expected way.
Micro-messaging and microaggressions are among the factors that get imbedded into organizational norms, supporting structural racism and inhibiting leadership development. We confront this oppression by building accountability in cross-racial partnerships.
Organizations develop multicultural climates when they value inclusivity, build on strengths, and challenge oppression (Hyde, 2004). Effectively changing the culture of an organization to promote multiculturalism and equity requires directly focusing on issues of social identity and oppression (Ramos & Chesler, 2010). To build understanding, we need cross-racial dialogues where white people listen to people of color without judging or attempting to put forth alternative explanations for what the person of color experiences as racial bias.
Trusting the experience of people of color can inform pathways to change, as all members of the group work together to understand how structural racism operates in their organization. By letting go of assumptions, we can make room for and remain open to diverse voices and move forward collaboratively. Once we intentionally look at how the dominant culture (i.e., white) has influenced how we understand leadership, we can uncover bias and more easily recognize diverse leadership styles.
What can you do now? With a multiracial group of partners, explore cultural norms. For example,
Are leaders in your organization expected to promote themselves and their accomplishments, continually reminding others of their unique value? Is there consideration of those from other cultures who were intentionally raised to avoid self-promotion?
Who gets the most attention, those who assert “definitive-I” statements (I have set goals to…), or those who talk collaboratively about “process-we” (We are engaged in work toward our goals of…)? Are both voices heard as powerful?
How often do you notice a person of color presenting an idea (possibly in the process-we voice) only to have it passed over until a white person (possibly in the definitive-I voice) restates the same idea, which now gains traction?
How often do you hear a person of color use the definitive-I voice and then seen as pushy or aggressive?
Next time, we will focus on networking to build an antiracist community that moves the work forward.
Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, is an organizational consultant, psychotherapist in private practice, career/executive coach, professional speaker, and co-founder of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. Sandy is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is a social worker, researcher, and educator with 25 years of experience in mental health and social justice centering on culturally responsive trauma-informed practice and organizational development.