Racism reeducation book #9 – Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Here are four questions to wrestle with from Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant and brutal Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.

Question one – If you’re white, how much would you have to be paid to live the next 50 years as a Black person?

Political scientist Andrew Hacker put that question to his white undergraduate students at Queen’s College back in the 1990s.

Most students said they’d need $50 million to “buy protection from the discriminations and dangers white people know they would face once they were perceived to be Black.”

Question two – What would you have done with Hitler if he hadn’t killed himself in a bunker (that’s been paved over and turned into a nondescript and unmarked parking lot)?

In 1944, the public school district in Columbus, Ohio ran an essay contest where they put that question to students.

A 16-year-old Black girl won the contest with a single sentence – “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”

The contest ran the same year a Black teenage boy, who sent an innocuous Christmas card to a white girl at work, was bound and thrown into a river while his father was held down on shore to watch his son drown.

Question three – Are you willing to be as courageous as August Landmesser?

There’s a famous photo taken in 1936 at a shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. Hundreds of workers are heiling in unison. August is the only one who refuses to salute.

“Looking back from our vantage point, he is the only person in the entire scene who is on the right side of history,” says Isabel. “Everyone around him is tragically, fatefully, categorically wrong.

“We would like to believe that we would have taken the more difficult path of standing up against injustice in defense of the outcaste. But unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of love ones and neighbours and coworkers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible, for everyone to be that man. What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”

So if you’re a white person, do you have the courage to dismantle a caste system that’s given you a lifetime of unearned economic, social and political privileges simply because of the colour of your skin?  Are you prepared to direct your anger up, rather than down, the ladder? Are you willing to stop correcting, directing, disciplining and policing the people who are the bottom rung?

“The fact is that the bottom caste, though it bears much of the burden of the hierarchy, did not create the caste system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it,” says Isabel. “The challenge has long been that many in the dominant caste, who are in a better position to fix caste inequality, have often been least likely to want to.”

And question four: While debate rages about statues, monuments and memorials for slave owners and segregationists, it’s worth looking at what Germany has done.  “Rather than honor supremacists with statues on pedestals, Germany, after decades of silence and soul-searching, chose to erect memorials to the victims of its aggressions and to the courageous people who resisted the men who inflicted atrocities on human beings,” says Isabel.

Next to the front doors of a subway station in the heart of Berlin is a sign that’s nearly a storey-high and impossible for residents and tourists to miss. The sign reads Places of Horror That We Should Never Forget and then lists a dozen concentration camps where millions of Jews were slaughtered.

So where would you put a storey-high sign in your city that lists all of Canada’s former residential schools?

You’ll be forced to confront many more uncomfortable and unforgettable moral questions in Isabel’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns.

“Evil is not one person but can be be easily activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal,” says Isabel.

“It is easy to say ‘if we could just root out the despots before they take power or intercept their rise. If we could just wait until the bigots die away…It is much harder to look into the darkness in the hearts of ordinary people with unquiet minds, needing someone to feel better than, whose cheers and votes allow despots anywhere in the world to rise to power in the first place. It is harder to focus on the danger of common will, the weaknesses of the human immune system, the ease with which the toxins can infect succeeding generations. Because it means the enemy, the threat is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.”

Racism reeducation book #8 – Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be

The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

I made the mistake of going into a North Hamilton neighbourhood with good intentions.

I persuaded my employer to get involved in events, projects and partnerships. When I talked about the neighbourhood, I called it one of the city’s poorest, with above average unemployment, below average high school graduation rates and third-world health outcomes. I ignored the neighbourhood’s strengths and assets and instead zeroed in on shortcomings and gaps. If that wasn’t insulting enough, I also pitched a path out of poverty that must’ve seemed impossible and impractical to a whole lot of people.

Dolly Chung's The Person You Mean to Be

I pretty much did everything that social psychologist Dolly Chugh warns against in her book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.

“There are four modes of behavior that prevent believers from humanizing others and prevent them from becoming a builder,” says Dolly, who’s an expert in unconscious biases at the NYU Stern School of Business.

“In these four modes – savior, sympathy, tolerance and typecasting – good intentions are counterproductive. By trying to be a hero, by feeling bad, by treating differences as something to be tolerated or ignored or by typecasting someone to be someone they may not be, we operate in modes that do more harm than good.”

I also overlooked the lifetime of headwinds that were battering generations of kids, teens and grown-ups in the neighbourhood. As a white, straight, able-bodied man, I’ve sailed through life with the benefit of a constant tailwind. When you’ve faced few, if any headwinds, it’s easy to believe that everyone can find the will and the way to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of their lives.

“Headwinds are the challenges – some big, some small, small visible, some invisible – that make life harder for some people, but not fall all people. When you have a tailwind pushing you, it is a force that propels you forward. It is consequential but easily unnoticed or forgotten. The invisibility of headwinds and tailwinds leads us to vilify people facing headwinds. It is no coincidence that the groups facing great headwinds in our society are also the most negatively stereotyped. Our failure to see systemic headwinds and tailwinds in the world around us leads u to blame the people facing headwinds.”

Dolly offers practical steps we can take to move from being believers in diversity, equity and inclusion to becoming builders of diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces and communities.

She recommends we educate and occasionally confront others by following the 20/60/20 rule.

The easy 20 are believers in diversity, equity and inclusion and ready to become builders.

The stuck 20 are non-believers. They lack the internal and external motivation to control prejudice. “They may be loud and opinionated or quiet or resilient. Either way, they will suck the life and sustainability out of you if you try to educate or confront them.”

Your goal with the stuck 20 isn’t to educate, persuade and change them. Your goal is to neutralize their ability to hurt others. Tell the stuck 20 that you and many others see things differently. Don’t try to convince them that they’re wrong.

The middle 60 is passive, silent and the most susceptible to influence from the stuck 20 or easy 20. They’ll notice what you say to a racist or if you choose to say nothing. Persuade the undecided majority by telling stories. “The middle 60 tends to be less invested. Stories generate quick bursts of emotion and humanity. Facts are obviously important and are useful for rebutting falsehoods, so know and remember as many as you can. When in doubt, however, stories are more likely to persuade the middle 60.

It can also be tricky to know if speaking up means you’re speaking over someone who’s more than capable of standing up to the stuck 20 and defending themselves. Dolly recommends we not be a bystander whenever someone’s being targeted by racists.

“A big part of allyship is speaking up and not leaving people on their own when they are targeted. One approach is to turn to the target and simply ask for their guidance on whether they would like you to intervene. We can say ‘Would it be okay if I jumped in here?’ or ‘I know you can handle this, but I’m here as backup’ or ‘I’m happy to take this one’ or ‘Say the word if I can help.’ When in doubt, say more, not less.”

There’s no right way to become a builder, says Dolly. It’s hard work being a better human being and it’s always a work in progress.

“If there’s no right way, then each of us can find our own way to be builders and support builders,” says Dolly. “The only wrong way is to settle for only being believers. The work of being a builder is exhausting. If you are not exhausted, at least some of the time, chances are you are still a believer only.”

Racism reeducation book #6 – Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Alicia Elliott says indigenous kids have good reason to fear governmental care more than their parents’ poverty.

The Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River speaks from experience.

“In some sense I intuited this, even as a kid. I knew it was bullshit that social workers and cops had so much control over our family, that they could split us up the moment we didn’t cater to their sensibilities. Knowing this then made me hate social workers and cops. Knowing this now makes me hate the systems that empower them – systems that put families in impossible situations, then punish them for not being able to claw their way out.”

book a mindAlicia grew up in grinding poverty. She routinely went to school without lunch. She lived with head lice for a decade. Her family moved between empty rental houses and shelters. Alicia, her sister, three brothers and parents eventually settled into a two-bedroom trailer that didn’t have running water for five years. They ate a lot of low-grade ground beef, cheap pasta and pancakes for dinner.

And yet…‘My siblings and I were great students,” says Alicia. “We had no problems at school; no mysterious bruises discoloured our skin. We were liked by our teachers, made friends easily. We never lacked for love or encouragement.

“Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness – things neither social workers nor police offices have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged to patrol.”

Alicia’s family lived under the constant fear that they’d be separated at any moment. And they weren’t alone. Depending on the province, Indigenous kids in Canada are anywhere from five to 12 times more likely to be taken into government care than non-Indigenous children.

While the main reason cited for breaking up families is neglect, Elliot says that’s just another word for poverty. “Social services conflates not being able to afford adequate housing, food, clothing and health care with choosing not to have adequate housing, food, clothing and health care. Instead of supporting poor families and helping them become financially secure, social services’ approach is to simply take the kids. It’s as though they believe that removing the added expenses of children is doing poor parents a favour; or taking kids from loving parents and throwing them in impersonal, sometimes dangerous foster homes is doing them a favour.”

These forced separations have been playing out for hundreds of years, says Alicia.

“So many of our nations have been forcefully displaced, so many of our children stolen from our arms and placed in residential schools or, more recently, in the arms of overworked social workers and violent foster parents, as if white abuse could ever be better than Indigenous love.

“It is only recently that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has been referred to as genocide, and even then, it’s usually been ‘cultural genocide’ as if that somehow softens its edges and makes it more permissible. More Canadian.”

The 14 essays in Alicia’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground sharpen genocide’s edges and make the case for why Canadian success can’t continue to be dependent upon Indigenous destruction.  Alicia strips away our national fairy tales and shows our country’s hidden, darker side.

“True reconciliation with Native peoples requires Canada to stop its paternalistic, discriminatory policies and, most important, stop interfering with our sovereignty over our identities, communities and land,” says Alicia. “These are by no means easy or comfortable actions for Canadians to undertake, but they must be undertaken regardless.”

Racism reeducation book #3: Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race

racismSo You Want to Talk About Race is one of eight books I’ll be reading and reviewing as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

I did what Ijeoma Oluo says we shouldn’t do.

I reviewed a business book about diversity and inclusion for the Hamilton Spectator back in June.

I emailed a draft of the review to a pair of Black colleagues.

I said I was looking for feedback. But maybe a part of me was also seeking absolution.

As our organizations start to have hard and honest conversations about racism at work and what to do about it, Ijeoma cautions against leaning on our Black colleagues.

book raceIjeoma wrote the New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race and received the 2018 Feminist Humanist Award from the American Humanist Society.

“I’ve seen the look of trepidation on the faces of people of color when they are told that their organization or workplace will be reading this book together,” says Ijeoma.

“They immediately envision the burden that will likely be placed on them; they know they will be treated as the walking racial Google of the group to explain every term or nuance that escapes their white peers; or as the unpaid therapist to help their white peers process their emotions in realizing that perhaps they aren’t he anti-racist heroes they thought they were, all while ignoring the deep strain and trauma they are inflicting on the few people of color in their midst.”

You can spare your colleagues the strain and trauma by making Ijeoma’s book your pre-conversation homework assignment.

She answers 17 questions, from what is racism, intersectionality and microaggressions to cultural appropriation, the school-to-prison pipeline and what to do if you’ve been called a racist.

Ijeoma defines racism as “a prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power”. It’s the back half of the sentence that we need to wrestle with.

“The impotent hatred of the virulent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society. The truth is, you don’t even have to ‘be racist’ to be a part of the racist system.”

Ijeoma’s conversation guide will help you come to terms with that system and the role each of us can play in making overdue changes.

It’s good that our organizations are talking about racism and ways for creating workplaces where everyone feels welcome. But Ijeoma says we need to do more than just talk amongst ourselves.

“We cannot understand race and racial oppression if we cannot talk about it,” says Ijeoma. “Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more.

“But also act. Act now, because people are dying now in this unjust system. Act and talk and learn and fuck up and learn some more and act again and do better. We have to do this all at once. We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society.”

My summary of Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is posted here.

My summary of Robin Diagnelo’s White Fragility is posted here.

How to be an ally for your Black colleagues (review)

I used to think I was one of the good guys.

I’ve never said anything racist about a coworker. Never accused anyone of playing the race card or dismissed someone for being a token minority hire.

But I’ve stayed silent and never asked how or why.

How was it possible that I never had a Black professor or teaching assistant for any of the 32 courses that made up my undergraduate degree in political science? And why did our journalism school have just one part-time instructor who was Black?

And then looking back on my 27-year career in public relations with some of the region’s largest employers, how is it possible that:

  • I’ve yet to sit across from a hiring committee that’s had a Black member.
  • I’ve yet to report to a Black supervisor or serve under a Black CEO, president or executive director.
  • I’ve worked with only one Black PR colleague.
  • I’ve had less than a day’s worth of mandatory diversity and inclusion training and I once spent an entire workshop ridiculously stewing in White fragility.
  • I’ve yet to do a local media interview with a Black journalist.
  • I’ve been to events, summits, award galas, conferences and workshops where there have been no Black people in the audience, much less on the stage.
  • Of the 500 plus business books I’ve reviewed over the past 21 years, I could carry under one arm the books written by Black authors.

I believe diversity and inclusion make our workplaces better. I believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and has the right to belong. I believe in following the platinum rule. I believe bigots, racists and white supremacists are idiots. And I believe I’ve worked with, and for, good people who’ve shared all of these same beliefs.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth. I’ve cared but just not enough when the racism has been systemic. I’ve never asked why there were no Black profs or TAs or why no one on the hiring committees, in our PR teams and out in the audience was Black.

Is someone said “our organization’s colour blind, we don’t see race and we only hire the most qualified candidate”, I wouldn’t push back. I wouldn’t point out the less-than-stellar White colleagues who prove the best candidates aren’t filling every position. And I didn’t suggest that maybe the best people for the job weren’t stepping forward as candidates because they saw a glaring lack of diversity and a superficial commitment to inclusion.

And here’s one other hard truth. I’ve never wondered how I would’ve fared at school or in my career had I not been handed a whole lot of unearned white male privilege right from the start.

Silence is no longer an option. We’re all seeing what’s fundamentally wrong and it’s time each of us start doing what’s right.

We can get started at work by becoming allies for our colleagues from underrepresented groups.

Karen Catlin's Better Allies - Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“There are many opportunities in every workplace to listen, learn and take action as allies,” says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“Your first tip for being an ally is to be open to learning, improving and changing your opinion.”

Catlin says there are seven kinds of allies.

  • Sponsors vocally support the work of coworkers and help boost their standing and reputations.
  • Champions defer to colleagues in meetings, events and conferences to send a public and meaningful message.
  • Amplifiers make sure marginalized voices are heard and respected.
  • Advocates use their power and influence to bring peers from underrepresented groups into exclusive circles.
  • Scholars listen and learn as much as possible about the issues facing their colleagues, do their own research and seek out relevant information. Don’t dump this work on your Black colleagues – they’re tired of educating.
  • Upstanders are the opposite of bystanders. When they see racism and injustice, they make it their mission to eradicate it.
  • Confidants create safe spaces where colleagues can talk about their fears, frustrations and needs.

Catlin draws a distinction between allies and knights. If you opt for a quick, easy and simple one-off fix for a colleague, you’re being the knight in shining armour. Your colleagues don’t need a virtue-signalling White savior.

What they need are allies who’ll do what’s right rather than what’s easy. Ending systemic racism and building an inclusive workplace is hard work and demands a long-term commitment.

“Being an ally is a journey,” says Catlin. “This may seem frustrating at first because it’s tempting to want to earn an ally badge and consider oneself to be a lifetime member of the Genuinely Good Human Beings Club.

“Instead of feeling frustrated that you’ll never reach some mythical, fully fledged ally status, remember that we’re learning together. The ally journey is an enlightening and worthwhile one, even though it’s a perpetually ongoing one.”

Racism – whether it’s overt, subtle or silent – needs to end. Our colleagues and communities deserve better. We need to listen, learn and then act and advocate as true and trusted allies. Catlin shows us how to start the journey.

This review first ran in the June 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999. Reviews are archived at jayrobb.me.