Diversity & Speech Part 12: Systemic Racism – by Carlos E. Cortés

For the past two years I have been writing a series of columns about the complicated intersection of inclusive diversity and robust speech.   Although my last column appeared just two months ago, in some respects it seems like ancient history.  Maybe it is.

Because on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis Police Officer named Derek Chauvin jammed his knee against the neck of George Floyd, an African American man, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, until Floyd was dead.  Those 526 excruciating seconds, recorded and widely disseminated, may have changed the course of U.S. history.  That incident has certainly changed the way that we are currently talking about race in particular and about diversity in general. 

Floyd’s death and its aftermath have been the death knell for one word: neutrality.  It is  not enough to not be racist.  Each one of us needs to make a choice: am I going to be an anti-racist or am I going to be a silent enabler of racism?  There is no neutral position.

Anti-racism is not a new idea.  I attended my first anti-racist workshops in the late 1960’s.  Myriad books have been written on the topic.  People have been talking about anti-racism for decades.  But not like they have since George Floyd’s death.  Individuals and organizations that had studiously avoided the issue of racism, particularly systemic racism, have begun to take a stand, even if some of those stands seem mushy or pro-forma.

What about professional diversity advocates, such as diversity trainers and consultants?  I have been doing diversity training for nearly half a century.  I’ve attended workshops, listened to lectures, and read unceasingly about diversity.  I have also been teaching diversity trainers for a quarter century.  Those experiences have convinced me of one thing.  Diversity advocates may (or may not) do a fine job with such topics as inclusion, equity, privilege, microaggressions, intersectionality, neuroscience, mindfulness, and implicit bias.  But in their professional work many diversity advocates — maybe most — shy away from directly confronting racism, particularly systemic racism,. 

The reasons are many.  Insufficient knowledge.  Lack of confidence in their skills for managing tough conversations.  Too many years of relying on diversity workshop gimmickry.  Trepidation about moving out of their diversity comfort zones.  Fear of losing clients.    

Then there is our speech?  The current language of diversity is useful for some topics, but it is woefully inadequate for the present challenge of addressing systemic racism.  We must develop better, more effective ways of talking about something this complex and lethal.  We don’t need more rituals of white shaming or proclamations of white repentance.  We don’t need to wallow in cultural studies jargon.  We don’t need clichés about preaching to the choir.  We all need to listen, speak with courage, and be willing to learn.   

George Floyd did not suffer a microaggression.  He did not die because of implicit bias.  His lifeless body is not an example of intercultural insensitivity.  Celebrating diversity or sharing ethnic food or holding privilege walks are not going to bring him back to life.  Nor are they likely to save the life of the next  African American who dies at the hands of a police officer or some gun-toting citizen arrester.

As much as diversity specialists might want to continue training in their pre-George Floyd comfort zones laden with inclusivity platitudes, history has blindsided them.  In addressing systemic racism we cannot rely on diversity buzz words, slide by with recycled ideas, or depend upon workshop gimmicks.   We can’t because George Floyd will be present, eyeing us, in every diversity workshop for the near and maybe the distant future. 

Diversity advocates will need to develop more incisive language for illuminating racial inequities, better ways of exposing and explaining structural insights, and more effective means for unmasking the cultural practices that support oppressive, racist systems.  In our workshops and consulting we’re going to have to ask tougher, riskier questions and keep probing when are met with evasive clichés and platitudes. 

***What elements of current institutional and organizational structures create and maintain racism and inequality?

***What cultural underpinnings support those oppressive structures?”  (And we cannot allow workshop participants to slip by with facile, knee-jerk responses like racism, privilege, or white fragility.) 

***What are the most effective ways to battle racism by changing those oppressive structures and cultures?

***What might be the unintended (and sometimes undesired) consequences of making such changes and what should we do if such consequences occur?

The opportunity to actually bring about fundamental societal change does not come along very often.  In death, George Floyd has given us that opportunity.   Now is the time for diversity advocates to draw on their courage and imagination to ask probing systemic questions, provide change-creating structural insights, and expose racism-supporting cultural practices.

Part 13: Education and Equity

2 thoughts on “Diversity & Speech Part 12: Systemic Racism – by Carlos E. Cortés”

  1. Thank you for your comment and perspective on Carlos Cortes. I’ve added you to our email list so that you can receive updated information regarding Dr. Carlos in the near future.

  2. Dr. Cortes has been teaching, and more importantly, “doing” Diversity before most of the U.S. realized the dire need for this work. Amen to his most insightful questions, as always. Thank you, Carlos, for continuing to offer solutions instead of platitudes. Brilliant!

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