To be anti-racist, don’t confuse character for accountability

The COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing killings of unarmed black people in America have sparked widespread outrage against structural racism. But the commotion is not enough.

To be truly anti-racist, we need to stop using character as a substitute for accountability. They are not the same. Accountability is a process of ensuring that each act promotes equity and benefit. Character shapes what action is taken, in which accountability is navigated.

To disrupt structural racism, we need anti-racism leaders who can shepherd and sustain our collective anti-racist change. And we need to facilitate the anti-racism accountability of our leadership.

The events of the past months in our Seattle community have brought this issue to the fore.

In one, a high school principal was placed on leave after finding that he had retaliated against a Latino student who demanded anti-racism accountability in his class. In another, a senior faculty figure at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center with an affiliated faculty position at the University of Washington School of Medicine stepped away from leadership and resigned from the affiliated position after photo evidence surfaced showing him as part of a costume. Was wearing blackface.

Both attempted to hold these individuals accountable in their respective communities: a full-page advertisement was placed in Greeley Tribune calling for their reinstatement under the name “Friends” of the high school principal; and a letter from senior teachers was presented in protest against the administration Faculty member exit Fred Hutch from the leadership and UW faculty.

These recent events suggest that individuals in leadership positions are increasingly being held responsible for either racist actions or their lack of anti-racist leadership abilities. They also show how people generalize whiteness, white racial identities as “good,” “right” and “appropriate” to prevent white leaders from being held accountable.

The racial identities of these leaders are prominent because of how whitewashing works to perpetuate white supremacy, a founding ideology of this country that we must continue to disrupt our country’s ideals for it to be truly achieved. The expression of whiteness occurs when white individuals are given the “benefit of the doubt” despite evidence of harm—when a white person’s intentions or reputation are more important or focused on the effects of that person’s actions or inaction.

We are all socialized into whiteness as a by-product of living here. The primary purpose of whiteness is to consolidate power through structural racism to value, preserve and reinforce white Western ways of knowing and being at the expense of non-white racial and ethnic identity. Whiteness intersects with, supports, and reproduces other mechanisms of marginalization and exclusion such as classism, sexism, heterosexuality, and enable, among others, to establish and maintain hierarchies among white people.

Structural racism is an abstract concept unless you or your family are burdened, exhausted, demoralized or harmed by it. The policies, practices and norms of our systems and organizations harmonize to maintain and reinforce whiteness, which creates a hostile and unequal environment in our schools, our workplaces, our cities. These harmful environments hinder innovation, creativity and excellence. These environments also extinguish existence.

Our leaders need to understand this threat and act, not only to promote equality in the environments in which they are accused of stewarding, but also to rectify the effects of past harm. This is anti-racist leadership. When a person in a leadership position cannot fulfill his anti-racist duty, that person should be removed from the leadership and replaced by one who can.

So, what must happen to promote disruption, reconciliation and repair? First, who are most affected by structural racism in America and what is the relationship between the legacy of colonialism and current power disparities in specific environments? Who is supporting the reinstatement of these leaders and why? Do those causes align with whiteness? If leaders are reinstated, how can this reinforce or exacerbate a hostile or unequal environment for those most affected by structural racism? What steps do these leaders need to take to prevent similar losses? Can these steps be taken while retaining his leadership? What level of anti-racism ability do we expect from our leaders? How do leadership roles need to change to achieve these expectations?

In asking and answering these questions, we need to focus on the voices of those most affected by structural racism; This process itself can form the basis and provide the structure for anti-racist accountability. Supporting our leaders is not just about providing an endorsement, it is about challenging them, and ourselves, to grow for equality.

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