By Jim Morris, WMFDP Chief Consulting Officer
Critical Race Theory isn’t a curriculum to be taught in schools. Nor is it ideology or strategy.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the explanation of the systemic nature of racism on US culture and society. Comprehending the pervasive impacts of racism on our institutions of government, education and commerce can be disturbing, even painful.
But, racism won’t go away simply because we prohibit talking or learning about it.
For white people, the notion that racism is baked into the policies and practices of government, laws, legislation and, even, the behavioral fabric of U.S. culture is almost incomprehensible.
Our incredulity is understandable. Everyday racism doesn’t typically impact us. We can remain comfortably oblivious to its existence, up to a point.
And, if we live in areas of the U.S. that are less integrated, more stratified or uniformly more white, like certain rural areas or entire states, it’s possible to go through life having few, if any, close relationships with people from other races or ethnicities. Living in these areas creates an unintentional echo chamber fueled by a lack of daily proximity to groups of people who regularly feel the impacts of racism.
Lack of proximity, though, can’t be the whole reason. We believe a lot of things we don’t personally experience, so why is it so hard for us to believe that structural racism is real?
If we listen and look with our brains and our hearts, a different reality is visible and readily accessible—even to us white folks: The evidence supporting the real story of systemic impacts of racism in the U.S. is massive. It ranges from disparities in the level of overall wealth in the US (white people control 90% of the wealth while making up only 77% of the population) to criminal justice (black people make up 40% of incarcerated individuals but only 13% of the population). Equally disturbing disparities exist in health care, unemployment rates, education, career advancement and access to credit, just to name a few.
Many white people see these statistics as a call to action to keep putting pressure to change policies and practices in a system that disadvantages and holds Black and Brown people down.
Others—perhaps because of their own feelings of scarcity and fear of losing their tenuous grasp on the American dream—choose to disavow the systemic benefits they receive and attribute their success solely to hard work and perseverance. For them, sustaining the narrative of their own individual success in the face of adversity becomes more real when they can dismiss the implications of CRT in its entirety.
Who can blame us for looking for a different, less dismal narrative than the real one?
It describes a society built on the backs of enslaved, exploited and oppressed people of non-white ancestry. It debunks the myth that rugged individualism and hard work were all that was needed to create one of the world’s richest and most successful societies. It reveals the limitations of free markets and capitalism and illustrates how wealth is more readily built when there is a group that can be forced to exist and work in inhumane conditions with the specter of death or torture as their only motivation.
Other societies have been able to own their past and move beyond it.
Susan Neiman, in her book “Learning from the Germans,” suggests we Americans create our own version of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung—which translates into “working off the past.” Working off the past has been a decades-long process through which German citizens have come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust.
Somehow, German society has learned that the way out of the past is by understanding it—not denying it. The history of the holocaust is unceremoniously named and discussed in German media, education and culture. When attempts to minimize or justify the actions of the Nazis show up in public media, they are quickly criticized and renounced. Victims of the holocaust are remembered and memorialized across the country. Events such as the liberation of Auschwitz, Kristallnacht and the end of the war are marked, celebrated and grieved.
Yet, in the U.S., our children learn more about the Holocaust than they do about this history of their own country—to the history of enslavement and the impacts of structural racism on Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian people.
Neiman points out that there are more Holocaust museums in the US than in Poland, Germany or Israel combined. Why? She thinks it’s “a form of displacement for what we don’t want to know about our own national crimes.”
From what we know about shame and our reaction to it, this makes a lot of sense. Rather than working off the past, we deny it. We feel justified. We protect our children from the trauma of the truth or the incompleteness of the history they were taught. Our denial shields us from the trauma, too, we think.
Shame and guilt survive and thrive in the darkness of denial and misinformation. When we have the courage to face what has happened and to expose ourselves to the brightness of the truth, our shame shrinks. When we take steps towards reconciliation, we also take steps out of the pain.
What happened in the past is not our fault—but we are responsible for what happens next.
Let’s open our eyes and try to understand our history. Denying it is literally tearing us apart.
About WMFDP | FDP Global
WMFDP | FDP Global empowers leaders to be curious, be brave and be inclusive. We know that business is personal, so we take a personal approach, helping leaders build diverse and inclusive companies from the inside out. We are committed to your company’s success, because inclusive skills make inclusive and diverse workplaces, which make a more inclusive world for us all to thrive.