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Five Signs Your Organization is Racist

not racist qqFirst of all, let’s be clear that it doesn’t require intention to act racist. This is obvious throughout our society based on elements within our language and habits; from humor (2 Jews and a Black guy walk into a bar…) to descriptive idioms (being black balled is a bad thing). Racism is a given within our social culture.

It does, in contrast, require intention to act in ways that are non-racist.

It is not reasonable to think that individuals or organizations can go from racist to non-racist in a single leap. Such change requires an investment of planning and time. Awareness is the first step in creating that change; awareness of what racism looks like within an organization, within our organization.

That means it’s important to recognize those objects and events, present or absent, that are actually racist. Some may seem more obvious than others, though they are still quite common. They include:

  1. The absence of an explicit, zero tolerance policy for racism in the workplace. This is more than the non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies required or even the EOE compliance statements. This is an actual policy written for the sole purpose of addressing overt and covert racism in the workplace. The procedures then outline the exact process by which a complaint is filed and investigated with the expectation that, upon completion of the investigation, all complaints will be provided a response. It also provides an element of protection for the individual filing. Without such a policy and procedure, an organization will be riddled with the organic and ingrained racism of history and our society.
  2. Having NO reports of racism from employees. That’s right; short of a system that builds in a resolution/solution component to their zero tolerance policy, racism always shows up (and even then, it’s still there). It’s inevitable because racism is insidious in bureaucratic systems. Not to mention, organizations would do well to welcome reports of racism. Until the problem is identified, it can’t be resolved. There is a level of safety required for those who experience racism to be willing to come forward (that should be addressed in the zero tolerance policy from #1). Without that safety, there’s only crickets. Similarly, without a system or framework for those reports and concerns to be heard, they can’t be aired. That means if your organization doesn’t have someone talking about the racism within, there’s a problem; your organization is racist.
  3. Few to no faces of color in upper management. The United States is made up of 36% non-white residents. If your upper management is 80 – 90% Caucasian or White-passing your hiring and promoting practices are probably racist. Period.
  4. “Diversity” training that is largely based on concepts of “education” and “awareness.” The only thing worse is if your organization doesn’t provide any type of diversity training. When I talk about “diversity” training, I’m talking about professional development related to harassment, cultural competence, respect, workplace bullying, or domestic violence (to name a few). Historically this has been done as drive-by training;  a one-time offering, sometimes legally mandated. At best, the goals and outcomes are to provide information and raise awareness. Reality is these types of trainings are less than effective, potentially harmful, and probably a waste of time. Professional development needs to be meaningful with applicable skills and strategies provided to improve the professional knowledge of individuals and organizations. Without such “diversity” support, organizations remain inherently racist.
  5. Little to no intentional development and support for organizational culture. Organizational culture happens, whether it is intentionally guided or not. Culture is also not the same as climate. The organizational culture is based on the operating norms, beliefs, and values of an organization while the climate is about the environment and/or atmosphere that culture creates. That said,  without intentionality, there is no guarantee of the exact culture of an organization. It is, therefore, difficult if not impossible to have an organizational culture that reflects respect and equity without a fair amount of investment. Such organizations are left to reflect the norm of racism.

As organizational leaders, we have to determine our priorities. If we are looking for high performing employees, respect is imperative. Respected employees have a strong positive impact on the financial indicators of organizations. Racism is not respectful. Racism hurts our organizations from the individual to the bottom line of profit and productivity. It is imperative to find a better way.


Looking for solutions to racism in your organization?



Leah Kyaio co-owns With Respect, LLC and works as the Executive Director, Program Developer, and Professional Development Trainer; providing strengths-based solutions that provide tools and skills to organizations and businesses to reduce and eliminate racism and sexism.

2 thoughts on “Five Signs Your Organization is Racist

  1. In addition to a zero-tolerance policy for racism, are there other policies that you recommend regarding “isms”? For example, LGBTQ? Gender? We could use that where I work.

    1. Great question, Jules.

      When considering the language of policy, it is always important to align it with the language of your organizational culture. For example, a no tolerance policy for racism could include a list of the “isms” for which it is important be called out. The other consideration, particularly related to LGBTQ issues and those of gender identity are related to comments about perception. Does an individual need to belong to a target group (LGBTQ) or simply perceived as such to be victim to the “ism?” I hope that helps.

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