What Does It Actually Mean To Be Anti-Racist In Organizational Leadership?

The leadership path to meaningful implementation of diversity, equity, belonging, indigenization, and overall genuinely respectful workplaces is both a) much simpler than we may have realized and b) more personally challenging. This article discusses why and includes thoughts for action.

This might sound controversial. I hope you’ll hear me out.

As much as it’s valuable to implement well-thought-out strategies for diversity, equity, belonging, people and culture, the leadership path in front of us is both much simpler and more personally challenging.

We need to cut to the core of what prevents meaningful diversity, equity and belonging in the first place. As we know from anti-racism work, it’s not sufficient to think to ourselves, “but this isn’t a racist organization.” But why is that not sufficient?

Because assuming your organization isn’t racist or ableist, etc, means there is no space for the possibility that your organization’s systems may actually be working against your thoughtful DEI/DEB or People & Culture strategy.

After all, systems are in place for good reason

The fantastic and useful thing about systems is how efficiently they sustain whatever inputs, frameworks and structures we put into them.

As we know, this means that systems efficiently implement whatever assumptions, rights and values were prevalent when they were created. This is natural cause and effect. And yet even though it’s natural, we still end up with issues.

This is how we end up with systemic issues – most of which are typically and genuinely unconscious to organizational leaders.

Here’s why all of this matters

Whether a large, established organization – or a small startup – there is a significant risk that the organization has systemic barriers built into it.

That’s because every single one of us grows up in a society that has very recent history (and current events) of systemic discrimination, racism, ableism, and the list goes on. And as humans, it’s neurologically completely natural to internalize our environments.

Those internalized unconscious frameworks all sit under the umbrella of oppression. That’s what all of these issues are, and I’ll save the academics on that for another day, but let’s put all of those systemic issues into a bucket that we call oppression.

We’ve internalized oppression, unintentionally

This means that each of us has this internalized bucket of oppression – even those of us who identify as historically non-dominant groups. And while it’s just natural to internalize these unconscious beliefs, it means that we are carrying around those beliefs unintentionally, causing our mindset to be ingrained in the very systems we as leaders are responsible for.

Let’s get back to why the leadership path is much simpler and more personally challenging than the most thoughtful strategies. It’s also what my encouragement is to every leader (including self-leaders) reading this:

Assume the oppression is happening right in front of you, because it very likely is, and ask yourself where it is.

Malumir R. Logan

That’s it.

I guarantee you that it’s there.

It might take awhile to start to notice those puzzle pieces, as you adjust your way of observing and thinking about your organization’s systems, structures and processes.

And as you do, I promise you’ll also start to see opportunities to adjust those systems – perhaps with the help of those thoughtful Diversity, Equity and Belonging or People & Culture strategies – to make meaningful change.

Didn’t you say this leadership path was simpler?

Why this leadership path is much simpler than relying on a “DEI” strategy or “people plan”: because it cuts through all the noise and looks for the quiet and often less apparent ways systemic issues are holding back your organization.

This leadership mindset is not for the faint of heart.

Cutting through all the noise, directly to the heart and on-the-ground reality of the matter is the simpler and yet more personally challenging leadership path for leaders who are serious about diversity, equity and belonging.

Not all leaders are serious about diversity, equity and belonging. If that’s you, you’re in broad company. But if you do take diversity, equity and belonging as seriously as you take your morning coffee (or insert whatever else you do religiously!), this approach will help you cut through all the noise and really get down to business.

Above, I mentioned this leadership approach is much simpler and simultaneously more personally challenging. The “much simpler” part is that it does cut through the noise.

Let’s get to why it can be more personally challenging

Assuming the oppression is happening in front of you and asking yourself where it is, is personally challenging for three key reasons.

The first reason is that it’s often initially difficult to train yourself to notice systemic oppression in an organization in which you’ve been successful as a leader. Even if you’re someone who has less privilege, it’s just natural that we acclimate to our organizational environments and our own social unconscious beliefs.

The second reason is that most people don’t go through life thinking about being ableist or sexist or racist. The thing is, every last one of us naturally internalizes the unconscious values and biases that quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) exist in society. We internalize this all through osmosis, if you will. This means it can feel unsettling to realize that, even if you genuinely didn’t mean to, you may have done or said something that impacts someone who is different from you.

The third reason is that once we as leaders recognize an issue of any proportion in our organizations, it can be daunting and uncomfortable to assess and implement changes. Especially if the changes involve getting buy-in from others.

Leadership isn’t easy and we all know that

Leadership is indeed all the messy “people stuff” and we are in an era where we’re collectively coming to terms with the need to deeply and meaningfully respect, value and champion people who have not been dominant.

Some thoughts and encouragement for you if you’re still reading this:

  1. You clearly care about these issues, and aren’t afraid to engage with your whole self (many people are!), even though you acknowledge the discomfort. You wouldn’t still be reading this article if you didn’t.
  2. You have the courage needed to put all those other leadership strategies and tactics to use that you’ve learned over your years in delivering leadership at every level.
  3. It’s okay to have power and privilege. Whatever power and privilege you do have, you can use to make your organization even more efficacious – a place where incredible talent wants to work (and remain!), a place with long-term sustainable outputs and outcomes, and a place that stays dynamic and on the forefront – because you’ve already put in the effort to question assumptions and make changes to adapt (something most organizations like to think they do but often struggle to accomplish).
  4. It’s doable at whatever level of leadership you are currently at (ask any of my current/former staff and colleagues!). Of course, the span of your power will influence whether or not you can make efficacious changes at an organizational level. But even if your span of influence is targeted, you’ll personally still end up with the absolute top talent and those sustainable outcomes we discussed!
  5. Remember those DEI/DEB and People & Culture strategies? All of your observations can be funneled into those strategies, which will also make your strategies’ implementation more meaningful (and will highlight opportunities for prioritization).

Assume the oppression is happening right in front you and ask yourself where it is. I promise it is and I promise that if you genuinely look, you’ll find it. And each of us as leaders has what it takes to make changes for the better when we see issues – if we didn’t have that capacity, we wouldn’t be leaders.

If you could ever use a sounding board/some encouragement, do let me know. This work is both deeply important and can feel just as difficult, at times. So let’s lift each other up and go happen to this week!

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