The organization might be a workplace, such as a nonprofit, an independent school, or a small business. It might be a club or association, or a congregation of a faith community. It might be an informal group. It might even be an individual person looking at their circle of friends. What is true of all these examples is that, as a group, the people in the setting are nearly all white with, at best, the occasional presence of a person of color. And, the same people feel the lack of people of color in their group is problematic. In other words, they are not simply unaware of their lack of racial diversity as some white groups are. Rather, they aspire to become multiracial.
This aspiration bears some examination. It’s not necessarily something held in equal share by every member, nor do those members who aspire to be part of a multiracial organization all hold the same reasons for doing so. Some are simply content with the organization as is. Some feel the current organizational culture to be bland, and hope people of color might enliven things. Others are sensitive to the emerging multiracial character of our nation. This may be compounded if the organization exists in a neighborhood or setting in which people of color are well represented. The absence of members of color then becomes a critique of the organization. “What’s wrong with us that they don’t come?” Some might feel a moral or spiritual obligation to join with all people. This is common for faith communities, who typically announce that “All Are Welcome.”
For an individual, it may be a matter of looking at one’s network of friends and acquaintances and seeing that few people of color are among them. In a 2013 survey designed to study the personal social networks in everyday people’s lives, respondents were asked to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the past six months. The results indicated that 75% of white people have no people of color in their social network. The same survey found that for every 100 people forming the social networks of white people, the average number of black people is 1.
Looking deeper into the souls of white people, we suggest that part of the white experience is feeling oneself to be separated from the wider body of humanity. There are systemic historical, political, social and cultural reasons for this separation, although they are seldom discussed or even acknowledged. Still, at some level, white people feel the separation and long for human connection that transcends these barriers. When that fails to happen, white people may blame themselves, “What’s wrong with me?” Or, knowing their intentions are good, they may blame people of color, “We’re good people. What’s wrong with them?” But they seldom blame these systemic forces that shape the lives of all of us.
In the meantime, the organization continues over the years much the same as it has before. Membership changes but the predominantly white character remains, as do the aspirations. The waiting continues.
Why this is so calls for some analysis. They say, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” We do not question the sincerity of groups and individuals who wish to expand the multiracial character of their lives. But we believe these same entities may be drastically underestimating the degree of effort needed to meet their goals.
Our society is structured by race. The predominantly white character of many organizations is not accidental. It’s a reflection of that structure which, as we said, has come about due to historical, political, social, and cultural forces at work over centuries. When organizations ignore this fact, it distorts their thinking. What seems to them to be a matter of individual effort, or lack thereof, is something more. Within the racial framework of the United States, multiracial structures and organizations have been largely absent. Those that have arisen have met with substantial resistance. In a racially structured society, everyone has a race, and everyone has a place, racially speaking. In this regard, racial structure has a place for you and a multiracial setting is just about last on the list.
Overcoming social forces like this requires a substantial investment of resources. It’s somewhat like changing a lifetime habit, such as giving up drinking, or smoking, or changing eating habits, or changing one’s personality. It can be done, but at great cost. In a similar way, changing how an organization functions within the racialized structure of our society is a substantial task. The societal default mode of operating is to remain predominantly white. Changing that takes time and effort, as well as money, communication, and commitment, all of which are scarce resources in most organizations.
Next, it takes a willingness to change, really change. It’s not possible to take a predominantly white organization, add some people of color, and then declare oneself multiracial. The reason is simply that predominantly white organizations are enmeshed in white organizational culture. Normally this works for white people. In fact, it works so well that it’s hard to see the culture at work. It feels natural, as if it’s just the way things are done. But there are other ways of doing, and some of the ways of white organizational culture do not fit well with the experience and needs of people of color. So, while white people may have a hard time seeing and naming white culture, people of color must contend with it even if it’s not named.
The organization, and everyone in it, will need to acquire racial literacy. In other words, you will need to see and understand the way race operates in the United States. And you’ll need the tools to talk about it. This means moving beyond colorblindness and developing a color conscious perspective.
We believe it can be done, but not without intention, and not without effort. Leadership needs to arise, priorities need to be set, and resources need to be applied.
The consequences of not doing this may not seem serious. Maybe just some existential angst about being “too white” and falling behind other organizations in preparedness for the emerging multiracial society. But making a genuine effort to become multiracial has its own rewards, bringing your organization more excitement, vibrancy, authenticity and meaningfulness in terms of human connection. Plus, from a strictly practical standpoint, it prepares you to function more effectively in the emerging multiracial character of our nation.
Think about it. It’s a big commitment. We suggest that waiting to become multiracial is not really a plan.
CSWAC interested in working with organizations who want to move beyond the waiting stage. If you’re interested in moving ahead, let’s talk.
We’re also interested in learning about organizations that have already moved beyond the waiting stage. If you know of any positive examples of organizations who are in transition to becoming multiracial, we’d love to hear them.