The difficulty with identifying (and defeating) systemic racism, especially for those of us who are not its intended target, comes from the fact that its existence and implementation — by design — is insidious. Its invisibility ensures its longevity.
And perhaps the most cunning part of this inconspicuousness is that it helps construct space for its denial. If you can’t identify it, explain it or begin to understand its operation and impact then its presence within society can be called into question. This plausible deniability provides virtually effortless, unimpeded assistance to those who help establish and maintain racist systems; impeding Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) from living equitable, liberated lives.
Additionally, it provides fuel to those (mostly White) people who believe society is getting too sensitive or more easily offended; a common gaslighting technique aimed at silencing those looking to reform racist policies and practices. If you can fool enough of the population into believing that challenges to patterns of embedded racism are merely groups of overly reactive, disgruntled people; you can continue protecting and constructing systems that oppress.
Systemic racism is a set of policies and practices that establish unequal social, political and economic opportunities/outcomes that disadvantage BIPoC. It’s a comprehensive set of structural powers that centre Whiteness as the cultural norm, therefore making it very difficult for White people to acknowledge it. ‘Normal’ implies universal; better than; settled; traditional. It becomes the status quo — with any perceived threat to it seen as an attack on Whiteness itself.
For those dedicated to keeping racism alive and thriving; it’s very much encouraged that any action taken to end its systemic roots is viewed as an ambush on society; that White history/heritage is at risk of being erased. The status quo, therefore, remains unchanged.
Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system. | Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The policies and practices that nourish systemic racism are all too pervasive. The Crown Act, for example, (which you can support here) is a law aimed at prohibiting race-based hair discrimination within education and employment. Natural Black hair and its protective styles like locs, braids, Bantu knots, twists, etc. have all too often been deemed unprofessional. Black students and employees have been sent home, suspended or even lost employment because their hair didn’t fit with what was considered acceptable — there’s an extensive history of this type of racism. Natural White hair isn’t seen as objectionable because it’s treated as the norm. This example of structural/systemic racism should’ve been dismantled by now; only 7 out of 50 states here in America have signed The Crown Act into law, which is unacceptable.
Healthcare as an institution in the USA has some alarming disparities between BIPoC and White people; both in terms of treatment/interactions within medical settings and health outcomes. There is so much to unpick here (historically and in modern-day) that it’s hard to know where to begin to highlight just how prevalent systemic racial biases, misinformation and discrimination is. One example that possibly illuminates why these disparities exist can be found in a 2016 research study carried out by PNAS. It looked at racial bias in pain assessment/treatment and erroneous beliefs about biological differences between Black and White people. 50% of the medical students and residents surveyed held one or more false racial biases; including Black people having less sensitive nerve endings, thicker skin, and blood that coagulates quicker than Whites.
Believing that Black people don’t feel as much pain as Whites; that they can somehow withstand injury because of thicker skin is a throwback to the notions of biological differences that were used to justify slavery. You can mistreat someone and dismantle their humanity and abuse their bodies if you think they don’t experience physical and emotional pain as you do. A community cannot just ‘get over’ generations of racism in this country because it never went away; it just evolved.
Black, Indigenous and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from preventable pregnancy-related complications than White women. Not listening to their issues or believing their pain compounds this alarming trend. There are also racial disparities within mental health services with BIPoC men and women being less likely to obtain access to reliable, quality care — some even being killed by police during wellness checks.
The United States healthcare system is in need of an urgent overhaul that eliminates race- and ethnicity-based discrepancies within medical treatments and health outcomes. But it doesn’t stop with healthcare; other examples of systemic racism that need to be dismantled include; voter suppression; income and wage-gap inequality; stagnant aggregate wealth; criminal justice disparity; education and housing inequity; and beauty standard bias.
I know that it’s hard to believe that the people you look to for safety and security are the same people who are causing us so much harm. But I’m not lying and I’m not delusional. I am scared and I am hurting and we are dying. And I really, really need you to believe me. Ijeoma Oluo | So You Want To Talk About Race
As outstanding as Black, Indigenous and Communities of Colour have been in mobilizing, educating and creating activism networks; that seeks to bring down the structures that maintain inequality, inequity and confinement, White people need to step up and drive the change too. Recognizing how [our] White privilege operates within the United States is a start, but that merely places us as observers to injustice. We need to commit to the work being done and tear down systemic racism to build something better.
I’m all in. Are you?
The good news is there are many things we can accomplish:
- Start with voting for government representatives already doing the work to unpick damaging policies
- Email, call or write to local officials to apply pressure if they aren’t defending vulnerable communities
- Participate in marches and protests
- Sign and share petitions
- Promote/support BIPoC-owned businesses
While we’re doing all this, we should take some time to examine our own racism and vigorously challenge the ways in which we perpetuate it (yes, we all have it in one form or another). If we aren’t actively a part of the solution, we’ll remain part of the problem; even if we don’t intend to.
How are you making sure racism and racist policies are challenged?
Why America Can’t Escape Its Racist Roots – The Harvard Gazette
Historical Foundations of Race – National Museum of African American History & Culture
Our Healthcare System Treats Black Mothers Differently – HealthLeaders