In the Pulpit and the Office: The Ubiquity of Racism Denial in Professional Workplace Dialogue
With the closing of churches, the pandemic has resulted in the creation of a Sunday-morning buffet of religious services that are available through various social mediums. My husband enjoys listening to a variety of sermons so when I end up in his viewing space, my interest is often piqued by the menu of fascinating perspectives around race that arise out of religious discourse. His Father’s Day channel surf gave me the chance to hear a White male priest share an experience and his perspective on racism.
In the Pulpit
The priest’s proclamation caused me to think more deeply about the many ways racism is denied. His reflection recognized the daily anguish of racism borne by African Americans, and in a quick pivot aptly denied any involvement in racism on his part. His comment captured my intrigue. In comparing the experiences of his Black colleagues, he declared “I do not have to deal with racism every single day of my life.” This innocent-sounding pronouncement suggested that he as a White man, was exempt from racism and that exemption offered him a door that he can open or close if he chooses. Yet this denial and its underlying ideology lie at the heart of racism. Instead of exclusion, the preacher’s denial makes him an active yet seemingly invisible participant, and thus complicit in racial dominance. This denial from the pulpit led me to reflect on racism’s complete disregard of any boundaries, and in this case in professional workplaces.
Over the last few years, I have been engaged in PhD research where most of my days were spent interrogating racial dominance. I remain captivated by the myriad ways in which racism is denied in discourse. In a recent interview with Ali Velshi on MSNBC, Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Antiracist” noted that “the heartbeat of racism is denial.” He told the audience that the first step to antiracism is acknowledging one’s own complicity. Kendi went on to explain that many Americans are committed to an idea that there is neutrality – a place where there is no complicity – even within a system designed to bend in the favor of Whites at the expense of people who are not White. Complicity, among other things he explained, is “to do nothing in the face of racial injustice, to do nothing in the face of racial inequity, to do nothing in the face of persistent black death is to allow that to continue” (Kendi, 2020). Denial then allows complicity to be renounced, offering what feels like safety, yet just serves as another form of complicity. Denial of a thing usually requires one to acknowledge (verbally or mentally) said thing. Racism denials come in many forms and my research examined willful avoidance, silence, shared opinions/beliefs, and the maintenance of white comfort.
In the Workplace
The ubiquity of racism’s cunning presence is exacerbated by the fact that engaging in racist discourse is not always blatant or intentional, rather is often a consequence of what are deemed normal institutional routines rooted in complex systems that are maintained in the interest of the dominant group (van Dijk, 1992). The often-masqueraded presence of racism denial is yet another tool by which the dismantling of racism remains elusive in workplaces and beyond.
In my recent research, I was interested in exploring the ways racial dominance operated in work-related discourse between social workers. What I found was that even with growing racial awareness, denial was present in social worker professional communications. As the number of conversations around racial dominance in workspaces continues to rise, racism denial will undoubtedly play a significant role in the development of generative conversations and potential resultant changes.
One of the themes of denial that emerged in my research was willful avoidance in which there was a deliberate act of turning away from something or someone. This turning away served to establish terms over who or what was worthy of recognition. In other words, practices of indifference to race and racism were the norm in a profession whose work “strives to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice” (NASW, 2017, p. 1). For example, a White, female reflected on her experiences with her all-White team that worked with predominantly Black youth. She noted that “I literally did not remember a supervisor ever talking about race, ever, not even in supervision or anything or group supervision.” Interview data from other participants revealed that the topic of race (and thus racism) was routinely avoided, silenced, or considered irrelevant in interactions with colleagues.
Juxtaposing the willful avoidance of White social workers were experiences of African American social workers. Decisions to avoid the topic of race were often grounded in self-agency and in the management of controlling images. One social worker knew that an influential, enduring negative image connected to Black women had the power to imply the presence of false characteristics:
“But I think it’s fair to think about someone who is in a position of power and control over you, if you start raising the issue. What does that mean for my livelihood? What does that mean for my own survival if I start to raise this as a problem, but you don’t view it as one? And how will I be further judged? Will I be passed up for opportunities because I pulled the Black race card, you know? Am I gonna be perceived as the angry Black woman? It doesn’t have to be stated but sometimes these things become part of the implicit communication.”
Another White social worker with growing racial awareness was able to see how racism and whiteness functioned in her workplace where a majority of African Americans were employed. She referred to her first directorship position in a new program. She recognized the discrimination taking place in the agency promotion processes which led to several levels of career advancement for her. She acknowledged:
“and I kept moving up. Every single one of my staff was Black, and I was White. And I was very conscious about that, especially when some of the people there who I was promoted over, like, clear as day, they would have been better at it than me.”
Armed with knowledge of racism and whiteness, she accepted the promotions. Dialectical forces allowed her to recognize complicity in discriminatory agency practices on the one hand, yet her denial in the form of silence and acceptance of the advancements precluded other more qualified candidates from being presented. Organizations are often involved in the denial of racism.
Denial of racism takes many forms within groups, institutions, and organizations. Willful avoidance, consensus, shared beliefs or opinions, and positive ingroup-presentation strategies strongly characterize the discourse of organizations and institutions (van Dijk, 1992).
Avoidance by organizations sometimes allows the subject to never be broached, to remain elusive and seemingly too complex and risky to address. The story of a White social worker in a leadership position highlighted willful avoidance within her organization:
“So, I think that’s something that administration is really hard to talk about when it comes to race. I think they’re afraid that if they even mention it, or even acknowledge that there’s a racial thing that it puts them at risk for liability, litigation, and all of that, and nobody wants to touch this issue.”
In this example, race was conflated with liability, legal issues, and risks for leadership. Race was the equivalent to legal encumbrance, dispute, and a topic to be avoided. According to the interviewee, this same company presented a public image of commitment to diversity. Denial in all its forms is a formidable opponent to equitable workplaces.
“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and dismantle it” Kendi (2019). Leaders are called to a particularly difficult, extraordinary, and rewarding work in preparing and guiding their organizations through the unimaginable challenges presented by exploring racial dominance. These examples serve to highlight actual lived-experiences and the ways that denial strategies contribute to the (re)production and maintenance of hegemonic practices. Unexamined practices stand in the way of progress toward racial justice. These real-life scenarios can be instructive for leaders and organizations who are committed to antiracist and racially just workplaces.
Our consulting, training, coaching, and leadership development work has three primary areas of focus:
We help groups and organizations develop and build capacity for sustained racial justice efforts.
We interrogate patterns of racial dominance and make explicit what is implicit.
We uncover and name injuries that obstruct racial justice efforts.
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