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Racial Equity in the Workplace Requires Change at the System Level

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Your organization has made a bold stance and declared #BLACKLIVESMATTER. Now what?

Structural and institutional racism exists in America not because the individuals within those structures and institutions are overtly racist (though that may sometimes be the case), but because the systems that support these structures and institutions perpetuate an ideology of white supremacy. Let’s unpack that.

The “Racial Equity Resource Guide” published by W.K. Kellog Foundation explains that, “The structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance, and privilege. This dominant consensus on race is the frame that shapes our attitudes and judgments about social issues. It has come about as a result of the way that historically accumulated white privilege, national values, and contemporary culture have interacted so as to preserve the gaps between white Americans and Americans of color.” Institutional racism, defined by Maggie Potapchuk, Sally Leiderman, Donna Bivens and Barbara Major in their book Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building refers specifically to “the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups. The institutional policies may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create advantages for whites and oppression and disadvantage for people from groups classified as people of color.” And, white privilege, as defined by Peggy McIntosh in her 1988 article, "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women Studies," refers to the “unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.”

In short, racial oppression is able to thrive in society and in the workplace because social systems are designed to support a hierarchy of human value with white lives at the top of the hierarchy. This is so ingrained in the American cultural DNA that it typically occurs at the unconscious level.

Racial equity in the workplace requires organizational systems change.

The vast majority of American corporations operate in the Orange Business Paradigm. The goal of these organizations is to beat competition and to achieve profit and growth. Innovation is the key to staying ahead. The management approach of organizations operating in this paradigm is by objectives. Management dictates the commands and controls with regard to the what but allows for some freedom on the how. Key breakthroughs of these organizations are innovation, accountability, and perceived meritocracy. These organizations function, metaphorically, like a machine. Most people reading this article are likely nodding their heads. This sounds very familiar. It is quite likely the way your own organization functions.

Organizational Business Paradigms

Revised and Inspired by "Reinventing Organizations" by Frederic Laloux

When it comes to racial equity in the workplace, the organizations operating in an orange paradigm tend to focus their racial equity work in the form of Diversity & Inclusion programs. They have hiring practices and policies in place that attempt to ensure there is diversity represented in the workplace and there are also practices in place to ensure that those who represent diverse populations are heard.

The challenge with D&I programs is that they are embedded in white cultural norms, making them inherently, if unintentionally, racist. And, by racist I mean juxtaposed against whiteness. “Diverse” is anyone that does not identify as white, cisgender, or heteronormative. Diverse means other. And, inclusion means that white, cisgender, heteronormative standards are what the other is invited into. This is not equity. It is an invitation to assimilate to white, cisgender, heteronormative culture.

Organizations that operate in the orange paradigm are typically aligned with white cultural norms. The Table below details what these are.

The topdown, command and control characteristics associated with these organizations are highly outcomes focused, and they value tasks before relationships and results before process. There is little space available for making mistakes, and quantity is valued over quality. How many times have you heard, “We are going to build the plane while we fly it”? This phrase embodies the sense of urgency so prevalent to organizations in the orange paradigm. Organizations that operate with an orange paradigm tend be conflict avoidant. It is just business. Don’t take it personal. They are paternalistic (command and control). Those at the top of the hierarchy “know best.” Just do as we say. And there is a lack of subjectivity with regard to decision-making.

Racial equity in the workplace exists when there is equal opportunity and equal access to resources for people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and when there is social equality for people of different races. To achieve this, organizations must go beyond diversity and inclusion programs and introduce antiracism in the workplace. Antiracism is any idea, behavior, or action that positions all racial groups as equal. To be antiracist, organizations will have to abandon the orange paradigm and begin to operate within the teal paradigm. This will require a fundamental redesign of the organizational system.

Organizations that operate within the teal paradigm are fueled by the evolutionary power of life. This means there is an intentional focus on wholeness and authenticity for both the organization and that of its members. These organizations have processes and policies in place that allow the organization to develop, evolve, and grow organically and in alignment with its own evolutionary purpose and that of its members — all its members. An organizational system that operates within this paradigm has the organizational fluidity to shift from a Compliance Organization (orange paradigm) to becoming a Fully Inclusive, Multicultural, Antiracist Organization. This will require intentionality, commitment to the long game, and a willingness to surrender white cultural norms that are so familiar to most working Americans but that are equally uncomfortable, stifling, and often rife with conflict and dignity violations.

This shift is hard work. It requires paradigm change, culture change, and most likely leadership change. However, the pain that has erupted across our nation is showing us that if we are to have peace in our nation, and if we are to have peace in our workplaces, systemic change will have to happen. At Workplace Peace Institute, we are working to usher in this change. We invite organizations join us.


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