Anti-racism is not just the right thing to do, it also makes you a better leader

Blog | February 22, 2022

“The opposite of racist isn’t not-racist, it’s anti-racist” Ibram Kendi

Anti-racism goes much deeper than saying the right words.

I was raised in respectful and “open-minded” communities, so the ‘anti-racist’ work I was taught to do meant avoiding certain words, celebrating diversity, and acknowledging the equal rights of all.

What I was completely oblivious to was that I had lived in a white bubble for most of my life and that I had greatly benefited from my white privilege and that saying everyone had equal rights had very little impact on people actually having equal rights.

And I didn’t know the difference between non-racism and anti-racism.

According to NAC International Perspectives, “Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.”

My own personal work with anti-racism is turning inwards and taking a long relentless look at the culture of whiteness I am surrounded by, benefit from, and perpetuate through my actions.

“Ok, fine but what does anti-racism have to do with becoming a great leader?” you ask

In a previous article, I shared how doing anti-racism work is an integral part of becoming a successful, influential, sought-after leader.

Now you might be wondering why.

Working for 10+ years with leaders at Big Tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Squarespace, and high-growth startups such as DigitalOcean, Catalyst, Auth0, and Paxos (to name a few), I realized that becoming a great leader requires deep inner work that leads to outer transformation.

This inner work requires self-awareness, empathizing with others’ (diverse) experiences, and cultivating the interpersonal interactions and relationships that make you a sought-after leader in your organization.

This is the inner process that anti-racism requires of us. 

Anti-racism starts with awareness

For most of us, white skinned advantage is perpetuated by unconscious assumptions that insidiously sneak inside our everyday lives.

MettaWork’s premise is to understand our unconscious behaviors and beliefs and shift them in order to be successful. And that’s where the anti-racism work is as a leader.

Even the most well-intentioned people and organizations can perpetuate subtle patterns that knowingly or unknowingly alienate people of color and invalidate their experience. In fact, the most well intentioned white people can be the most dangerous as we are so fixated on being good that we cannot bear to own the fact that all of us are racist. If we do, that may mean we are a bad person. This “good bad binary”, can actually sabotage white people from doing powerful antiracism work.

And in the field of anti-racism, change speaks louder than intentions.

From my experience, I can tell you this isn’t an easy process…

Because when we do the hard work, meaning being a white person facing our privileges, we’ll find that:

  • We start to realize a historical injustice that we have benefited from, and then naturally start getting defensive. “I’m not a bad person, I don’t choose to benefit from this. It’s not my fault.”
    Through my own journey, it took a great deal for me to come to terms with the fact that I can still be a good person and also do bad things that are harmful to people of color because of my own ignorance and perpetuation of white culture.

  • The second reaction (for people who are open to change) is typically guilt and shame. We feel anger, fear and shame, and silently start noticing the subtle but omnipresent ways racism exists in our society.
    When I started my own anti-racist journey, guilt and shame were paralyzing for me. My anti-racism coach, Makeda Pennycooke, taught me that what was most important was to hold the shame lightly. I needed to see it and work through it so that instead of shutting down, I could bring curiosity and openness to learn how to show up better as a white person.
  • If we move past guilt and understand this isn’t about us being good or bad but unlearning deep conditioning, the third reaction is action. We want to actively do what’s in our hands to shape our workplaces, households, and inner places of our minds.
    I am now able to bring awareness to my own inner racism with less shame and more curiosity. With curiosity I can more effectively disrupt deep belief systems and conditioning that have perpetuated racism. 

The one thing that is common through this whole process is awareness.

All great leadership is based on relationships. And the first relationship is always with yourself.

Deep anti-racism work requires us to look at  ourselves and recognize we bring our own history and biases to the table.

It requires us to face our assumptions and ask the fundamental question: Why do I think what I think?

What you find might shock you. As Americans, we have absorbed hundreds of years of beliefs that in very subtle ways perpetuate the very inequalities we try to disrupt.

As a white person, I will never truly comprehend the experience of a person of color.  When we realize this, we leave behind sympathy (the superficial “I get you”) to true empathy:

Let’s get curious and open to someone else’s opinions and emotions, even if we don’t fully understand them.

Because if we’re unconsciously excluding people in our interactions, we’re missing out on really connecting with them as leaders.

In a nutshell, anti-racism work invites us to check ourselves on a deeper level. It forces us to empower those around us by actually listening to them.

This doesn’t mean every decision should be based on consensus, but to listen and care for others’ opinions when making it.

And once we do the inner work that anti-racism requires (and that frankly never ends), we will be a little less blinded to one another’s histories and biases that we all bring to the table.

People can tell the difference when a person has authentically shifted internally. This deeper bonding and sensitivity naturally brings influence, and inspires people to gather around the great leader who cares enough to go through the difficult process it requires.

If you’d like my team and me to help navigate this inner transformation so you can become the great leader your organization deserves, book a time with us here to learn more about our coaching programs.

Also, if you want expert help to embrace anti-racism within yourself and your organization, contact Makeda Pennycooke as one of the anti-racism leaders I can personally vouch for!

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant