Addressing Racism, Word by Word

To achieve progress in addressing racism, businesses must move beyond arguments about semantics.

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As protests against racism have filled streets across the country this year, I’ve been hearing from businesses looking for ways to navigate these controversial times. They generally have good intentions. But all too often, their efforts to take action devolve into petty battles over language.

The terms unconscious bias, white privilege, and even Black Lives Matter can trigger emotional, defensive responses — something I see frequently in deeply conservative parts of Texas where I consult with companies. It becomes a trap.

Even the term racism stymies some organizations. Many people have been taught that all racists wear hoods or swastikas; they’re toxic, violent, terrible people. So, many instinctively reject the idea that they, and good people they know, may be part of a racist culture. We want a language that “others” racism to those horrible people over there, but never ourselves.

People also recoil against the concept of systemic racism. If they’ve had success within the system, they feel this term diminishes their own hard work and skills. People similarly resist language that limits their behavior or calls for significant change. Whether it is “defund the police” or calling someone a “Karen,” we spend more time battling the labels themselves than the concepts that drive them.

Part of the problem lies in language itself. In sessions I lead for businesses, I often discuss how people who live in certain icy parts of the world have dozens of words for snow and ice because their survival depends on it. When something plays a major role in your life, you recognize the many different forms it can come in. In American culture, we use the same word, racism, for a Ku Klux Klan member burning a cross on a lawn and a teacher discouraging Black children from applying to the best schools because she assumes they won’t get in. Both are racist, and both need to be addressed, but they’re not the same. Treating them as such makes it nearly impossible to address them successfully.

Even the terms diversity and inclusion can mean different things to different people. As a result, many businesses spend more time arguing about semantics than getting things done. Three key steps can help companies solve this problem.

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