We Must Foster Individual AND Systemic Change for Progress

Social constructs are reinforced to keep systemic barriers

Before the enslavement of people of color and the solidifying of human-invented racial classifications, we looked at each other as human beings. Maybe from different tribes or regions, but we had a general mutual respect for one another. Someone decided one day that light skin made you superior and dark skin made you inferior, and that all changed.

Racism doesn’t make sense. When we talk openly with our children about racism, there’s a general bewilderment about how skin color can dictate how you’re treated. Because underneath our skin we’re very much the same. The only real difference is the melanin level in our skin. Over time, White people found reasons to justify the treatment of people of color from brain size to animalistic tendencies. While all have since been refuted, these were lies told to support white supremacy.

Today, white supremacy looks very different. It’s not necessarily wearing a KKK cloak or declaring yourself a white nationalist, it’s more about simply believing that the white race is somehow superior to other races. White supremacy is nuanced. It could be subtle like not dating people of different races or believing a child of color has innate behavioral problems. None of these differences are biological, they are socialized.

The subject of gender came up in a conversation with a younger, college aged friend of mine that identifies as gender non-binary. They declared, “gender is a construct” and at first I was taken aback by this astute observation. As I thought about it, of course gender is also a social construct. Sure, there are biological differences between men and women however many of the differences are socialized and learned. Girls are not innately bossy, boys are not born leaders, confidence and gender expression is learned over time. By teaching our girls to be pleasing and take care of the needs of others before their own, to be seen and not heard, we are conditioning them based on gender.

Individual change within the systems

As we acknowledge the systems that support the majority group that tend to be less supportive of women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and those with disabilities, we are all playing a role in the system. Some of us are benefiting from the unfair advantages that we receive by being associated with the majority group and others are being disadvantaged by not having access to those same opportunities.

Self-awareness is key as an ally. Acknowledging your own privileges doesn’t make you a bad person. If you identify as straight and cisgender and attend a gay pride parade, or speak openly about your support of LGBTQ+ youth and advocating for the gay community, what are you losing? One of our most primal needs as humans is to help others. It’s how we earned the right to be a part of our tribes as hunters and gatherers. Today, it’s how relationships are formed. We are a social species and are not meant to be alone. Helping others that have less privilege than you helps you. There are a lot of ways that you can show up as a single person in the DEI conversation – vulnerability, empathy, curiosity, coaching, and more. Allyship is most powerful when individuals leverage their privilege to disrupt the systems that benefit them. That could be advocating for tax dollars to be spent on developing communities of color or housing programs that support people with different socioeconomic statuses.

Allyship is not a zero sum game

A lot of White men share that they feel like they are rooting against themselves by supporting DEI. They feel like they’re losing something, like somehow by acknowledging their privilege they might be giving up some of their advantages. It is not about losing your privilege, it is about sharing your privilege with others. By evening the playing field for everyone, you stand to benefit from the equality that’s created. When we have systems keeping certain people down and certain people up, we are not as good. We’re not as Innovative, strong, or optimal when we have limited diversity. We’re all losing when we leave these systems unchecked.

When we make systems equitable for some, they work better for all. For instance, the curb effect is a well-known social phenomenon. When we lowered curbs to support people in wheelchairs there was a ripple effect to other groups of people – people that push baby strollers, bicyclists, and small children. In creating a better environment for people with disabilities we also created a better environment for all people. Similar to the concept of a rising tide lifts all boats.

Want to do better, and not sure where to start?  That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.