The COVID-19 pandemic and continued murders of unarmed Black people in the U.S. have produced widespread outcry against structural racism. But outcry is not enough.
To truly be anti-racist, we need to stop using character as a substitute for accountability. They are not the same. Accountability is a process to ensure that each action promotes equity and beneficence. Character shapes what actions are taken, including how accountability is navigated.
To disrupt structural racism, we need anti-racist leaders who can shepherd and sustain our collective anti-racist transformation. And we need to facilitate anti-racist accountability of our leadership.
Incidents over 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 findings that he retaliated against a Latino student who sought anti-racist accountability in his classroom. In another, a senior faculty person at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center with an affiliate faculty position in the University of Washington School of Medicine stepped away from leadership and resigned the affiliate position after photo evidence surfaced in which she wore blackface as part of a costume.
Both attempts to hold these individuals responsible produced dissent in their respective communities: A full-page ad was placed in The Seattle Times by named “friends” of the high school principal calling for his reinstatement; and a letter from senior faculty was submitted to administration opposing the faculty member’s exit from Fred Hutch leadership and the UW faculty.
These recent events demonstrate that individuals in leadership positions are starting to be held to account for either racist actions or their lack of anti-racist leadership capacity. They also show how people wield whiteness, the normalization of white racial identity as “good,” “right” and “appropriate,” to prevent holding white leaders accountable.
The racial identity of these leaders is salient because of how whiteness works to uphold white supremacy, a founding ideology of this country that we must continue to disrupt to truly achieve our nation’s ideals. A manifestation of whiteness is when white individuals are given “the benefit of the doubt” despite evidence of harm — when a white person’s intentions or reputation is more important or centered over the impacts of that person’s actions or inactions.
We are all socialized in whiteness as a by-product of living here. The primary purpose of whiteness is to consolidate power through the value, protection and reinforcement of white western ways of knowing and being at the expense of nonwhite racial and ethnic identities via structural racism. Whiteness also intersects with, supports and reproduces other mechanisms of marginalization and exclusion like classism, sexism, heterosexism and ableism, among others, to establish and perpetuate hierarchy among white people as well.
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 synergize to uphold and reinforce whiteness, which produces hostile and inequitable environments — in our schools, our workplaces, our cities. These harmful environments hinder innovation, creativity and excellence. These environments even extinguish existence.
Our leaders need to understand this threat and act, not only to promote equity in the environments they are charged to steward but also to rectify the impacts of past harms. This is anti-racist leadership. When an individual in a leadership position cannot carry out their anti-racist duty, that individual needs to be removed from leadership and replaced by one who can.
So, what needs to happen to foster disruption, reconciliation and repair? First, who are those most impacted by structural racism in the U.S. and what is the relationship between legacies of colonialism and current power asymmetries in specific environments? Who is supporting the reinstatement of these leaders and why? Do those reasons align with whiteness? If the leaders are reinstated, how might this reinforce or amplify hostile or inequitable environments for those most impacted by structural racism? What steps do these leaders need to take to prevent their perpetuation of similar harms? Can those steps be taken while maintaining their leadership? What level of anti-racist capacity do we expect of our leaders? How do leadership roles need to be transformed to achieve these expectations?
In asking and answering these questions, we need to center the voice of those most impacted by structural racism; this process itself can form the foundation and provide structure for anti-racist accountability. Supporting our leaders isn’t just about providing an endorsement, it’s about challenging them, and ourselves, to evolve for equity.
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