Moving Towards Racial Equity: Not Your Typical Western

By Phil Basso and Alan O’Malley-Laursen    July 10, 2020

In our last blog, we wrote about the challenges facing the movement toward racial equity. One of the root causes of institutional resistance we noted was the “fear of chaos and hurt feelings” and the lack of experience, skills, and tools to facilitate and navigate dialogues amongst diverse groups where the emotions may run high. We went on to note that simply being present and actively listening while maintaining a sense of calm can set the stage for creating understanding and collaboration. As we continue to monitor the racial equity movement and observe “real-world” happenings of these current days, we see plenty of evidence that achieving this ideal state is very difficult, indeed.

In his provocative series entitled, “Cowboys and Indians: Dismantling the Western, Settler-Colonial Worldview,” Native American activist and scholar Randy Woodley describe “dualism” as perhaps the foundational fallacy of the Western worldview. He goes on to talk about the tendency of “Western” thinking to operate in terms of true or false, off or on, this way or that way. This would certainly include the notion of “we-they.” Further, he notes the difficulty in holding two seemingly divergent thoughts in tension without a resolution.

This dualistic perspective can readily be applied to our current struggles pursuing racial justice and examining the role of policing and other system involvement with people of color and other marginalized groups. Many of us have responded to the heightened visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement in a polarized “we-they” fashion. It seems to be a common assumption that attention to the struggles of Black Americans comes at a cost to other racial groups in our society. However, the notion of black lives mattering does not suggest that “other” lives do not. As Alan notes, “focus does not imply exclusion.”

Yet given our tendency towards dualistic thinking, the challenges to collaborate, innovate, and overcome remain. Brain science identifies the pervasiveness of the “threat response” and how quickly [within milliseconds] the brain “surveys” the environment for perceived danger. When we operate out of a “we-they” mindset—that if you are not for me then you are against me—then there is, indeed, danger all around us. Somehow it becomes a “zero-sum” situation where your gain is my loss.

So…where do we go from here? How do we get to that elusive place of collaboration, innovation, and overcoming challenges together?

Perhaps we could look at collaboration as being a continuum, with isolation on one end and, on the other end, full integration with a diverse group who care about the same things we do but invite a wide range of world views and experiences. Where one falls on that continuum is largely determined by the degree to which we:

  • Avoid engaging in the blame game. We noted in our last blog the tendency to label “white fragility” and complicity as problematic, much in the same manner as blaming marginalized groups’ struggles as being driven by their “type” rather than a combination of personal, environmental, and structural root causes. Both viewpoints depend on “we-they” thinking.
  • Set aside arrogance regarding our own sense of rightness. When we reflect on our own development and the growth of those around us, it is easy to see perspectives evolving over time. From children developing their understanding and skills to new employees developing their capabilities through job experience and the help of good coaching—the examples are countless. This is much more difficult to see under trauma and duress.
  • Recognize the commonalities between ourselves and others. Most effective, trauma-informed facilitation methods include opportunities for groups of people to share things about themselves in a manner that reveals our common ground is vastly larger than our uniqueness.
  • Value the differences between ourselves and others. The same facilitative methods lean towards recognizing how beneficial it is to join forces with people having different knowledge, skills, and experiences than we do. Indeed, this is the cornerstone frame for most organizational development programs.
  • Appreciate the limitations of what others [and ourselves] can be expected to do. There’s a term that Phil often uses, “strength through vulnerability.” Again, it’s not a Western idea, but one whose power hides in plain sight all around us. As the leaders guiding systems and communities through a traumatic present and into a challenging future, the capacity to be open and accepting—including openly acknowledging that we do not know the answers and need others to help us learn—is critical to reaching our desired future together.

None of this is easy by any means. It is, however, essential if we truly want to make progress toward racial equity and justice in our personal lives, in public spaces, and in our workplace.

About the Authors

Phil Basso (full bio)

Director, Organizational Effectiveness
American Public Human Services Association

Alan O’Malley-Laursen (full bio)

Employee Well-Being Professional
Olmsted County, Minnesota

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