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 create space for its denial. If you can’t name 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 almost effortless, unimpeded assistance to those who help maintain, but also create, racist systems that impede Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) from living equitable, liberated lives. It also provides fuel to those (mostly White) people who believe that everyone is just getting too sensitive or more easily offended by things. If you can fool enough of the population into believing that challenges to patterns of imbedded racism are just groups of overly reactive, disgruntled people you can continue to protect and further construct systems that oppress.
Systemic racism, to put it really simply, 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 ‘norm’, therefore making it very difficult for White people to acknowledge it. “Normal” implies universal. “Normal” implies better than. “Normal” implies settled. “Normal” implies traditional. “Normal” becomes the status quo, and any perceived disruption to it can be seen as an attack on Whiteness. For those dedicated to keeping racism alive, well and working, it is very much encouraged that any action to end its systemic roots are viewed as an ambush on society and that White history and heritage is at risk of being erased. The status quo, therefore, remains unchanged.
Whites control all major institutions of society and set the policies and practices that others must live by. Although rare individual people of color may be inside the circles of powers … they support the status quo and do not challenge racism in any way significant enough to be threatening. | Robin DiAngelo – White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism
These 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 what was considered acceptable — and there is a long history of this. Natural White hair and any style or look that may preserve its health have never been seen as objectionable because it is treated as the norm. This structure of systemic racism should have been dismantled by now but only 7 out of 50 states here in America have signed The Crown Act into law, and that is unacceptable.
Healthcare, as an institution in the USA, has alarming disparities between BIPoC and White people, both in terms of overall 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 false beliefs about biological differences between Black and White people. 50% of the medical students and residents surveyed held one or more false racial biases that included believing that Black people have less sensitive nerve endings, thicker skin, and blood that coagulates quicker than Whites.
Believing that Black people don’t feel as much pain or can somehow withstand injury because of thicker skin, etc is a throwback to the times of slavery when notions of biological differences were used to justify it. You can mistreat someone and strip them of their humanity and abuse their bodies if you think they don’t experience physical and emotional pain as you do. It’s incredulous to suggest BIPoC “just get over it [slavery] because it happened hundreds of years ago” when it’s still impacting their everyday lives.
Black, Indigenous and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from preventable pregnancy-related complications than White women. Lack of access to better care, which includes having their pain and issues being taken seriously, contribute to this alarming trend. There are also racial disparities within mental health services with BIPoC men and women being less likely to have access to reliable, quality care — some even being killed by police during wellness checks when seeking help.
This whole structure of healthcare in the United States needs to be overhauled. Discrepancies in treatment and health outcomes, on the basis of race and ethnicity, have no place in medicine yet they still prevail.
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
There are so many more examples of systemic racism like voter suppression, income and wage gap inequality, stagnant aggregate wealth, criminal injustice, education, housing, beauty standards, the list goes on and on.
And as outstanding as Black, Indigenous and Communities of Colour have been in mobilizing, educating and creating activism networks that seek to bring down the structures that maintain inequality, inequity and confinement, White people need to step up and help. Recognizing we, as White people in the United States, benefit from our Whiteness on a day-to-day basis is a good start, but all that does is place us as observers to injustice, which is an incredibly privileged position to be in. Let’s use our privilege to join, uplift and support the work being done that will tear down systemic racism and build something better.
I’m all in. Are you?
There are many things we can do as White people to help end systemic racism … We can vote for officials, in all levels of governance, who have already shown they are doing this work. Another example is emailing, calling or writing to current leaders (and organize a whole group to do it with you) and apply pressure on them if they aren’t protecting our BIPoC communities. Join marches and protests, sign and share petitions, promote and support BIPoC-owned businesses — and while we’re doing all this, we need to examine our own complicity in racism’s persistence because if we aren’t actively part of the solution, we’ll remain part of the problem, even if we don’t intend to be.
For further information:
Why America Can’t Escape It’s Racist Roots | The Harvard Gazette
Historical Foundations of Race | National Museum of African American History & Culture
Our Healthcare System Treats Black Mothers Differently | HealthLeaders