5 Challenges Facing White Leaders in Practicing Antiracism

Aug 21, 2021 | Leadership, Organizations

In order to fully realize organizational aspirations for racial equity and justice within organizations, DEI initiatives must include an exploration of white racial conditioning for white employees, and particularly white leaders, whose level of competency is essential to organizational change.

Without cultivating an understanding of whiteness and how it manifests in ourselves and in our organizations, we cannot create inclusive cultures of belonging for BIPOC employees. Creating welcoming cultures requires a disruption of the norms of whiteness.

Anti-racism is living out the idea that all people are equal through our actions, language and the policies we support. Becoming anti-racist can be uniquely challenging for white leaders. Here are five reasons why:


1. Much of the world is built around whiteness – Much of our society, because it was built on the principles of white supremacy, caters to and elevates light-skinned people. As is often said, we are white bodies swimming in an ocean of whiteness. This makes it the ingrained habits of whiteness hard for us to see because they look and feel normal to us. The heart of our work to become anti-racists is learning to see and dismantle these ingrained behaviors and even policies, which create the ubiquitous systems of oppression in society and in our organizations.


2. We have a false view of our national history – Understanding why whiteness and white supremacy are so toxic depends on having an accurate view of the racial violence and discrimination that has occurred throughout our history – dating back to before the U.S. Constitution was even signed. Many of us were taught false propaganda about our national history rather than the truth – such as the foolishness that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than protecting slavery or that Thanksgiving was born from an amicable meeting of white settlers and indigenous people. Many of these myths still live on in our culture. So, unless we take it upon ourselves to do this education as adults, we fail to see the systemic and structural nature of racism in this country, which makes it impossible to understand what’s required to dismantle it. In 1986, James Baldwin suggested we needed a White History Week in the United States because:

“One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. That’s why you think I’m a problem. But I am not the problem. Your history is. And as long as you pretend you don’t know your history, you’re going to be the prisoner of it.”


3. Disconnection from ancestry, identity and place. For many white Americans, who are several generations descended from their European ancestors, we may find ourselves the product of many generations of assimilation. This can leave us feeling like we don’t have a culture of our own and/or disconnected from our heritage and the reasons why our ancestors set out as immigrants to the “New World” in the first place. Many of us also lack any strong sense of place. While our mobility has declined in recent years, it is still common for many Americans to live somewhere other than where they were born due to immigration or moving for a job. In order to reconnect and to understand our position within a multi-cultural society it’s important to ground ourselves in time, place and history.


4. The vulnerability of on-the-job and public learning about race. As white leaders, we are in the position of learning from the members of our team, particularly people of color, about race. While we can and should take up our own education to learn about racial issues, we will still need to listen to and learn directly from the experiences of people of color within the company. This learning happens through daily interactions, as well as by engaging with Employee Resource Groups organized around particular identities.

Inevitably, leaders will find themselves making mistakes – unwittingly committing microaggressions or making comments that are perceived as racist or insensitive in some way. Most important, is learning from these mistakes, knowing how to respond and making repairs when appropriate. And, as leaders, it can be important to sometimes respond and make the repairs in a public way so that others can learn how to do the same.


5. You may be learning under pressure. The expectations around being able to effectively lead multi-racial teams has risen rapidly as companies seek to respond to correct racial disparities by hiring more employees of color and creating more inclusive cultures that help retain them. Many white leaders find themselves scrambling to build their skills and capacities under more pressure and scrutiny. Nonetheless, building this capacity requires long-term commitment and involves more than acquiring knowledge and saying the right things.