What Leaders Need To Know About Racism

By Ruby Campbell   • Jun 22, 2020

What Leaders Need To Know About Racism

In Australia, 2020 began with catastrophic bush fires, turning the decades-old scientific predictions on climate change into a tragic reality. Whilst still reeling from the loss of lives, livelihoods, flora, and fauna, Australians began to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic. More lives and livelihoods were lost, and sadly, continue to be lost not only in Australia, but globally. As these events unfold, cracks in our society keep surfacing, such as availability of affordable healthcare, childcare and even housing.

Inequality between the haves and have-nots is worsening. This is disconcerting when we consider the espoused values of equality, justice, multiculturalism, and freedom, by countries like the USA and Australia. However, the evidence says otherwise, as we watched in horror the video footage of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US on the 25th May 2020. The world was outraged, re-igniting the movement Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013.

The conversation about systemic racism, also known as institutional racism, is receiving more attention from the media than ever before. In addition, leading organisations (corporate, NFPs, academia) and professional and industry bodies have publicly expressed their rejection of racism. Notwithstanding our cynicism as we wonder whether these are opportunistic marketing stunts, it is arguably preferable to see outrage from organisations, instead of being silent, or worse, tone deaf. Many social scientists, historians, social justice advocates and journalists suggest that racism is at the centre of social inequality. Unless addressed, racism will hinder any society seeking to flourish.

In this respect, Australia continues to redefine its national identity as one of the most multicultural societies in the world and as such, it also grapples with racism, especially towards its First People. It seems that many Australians are unaware of the systemic racism that exists in its own backyard. Many more would be surprised to learn of the “Racism. It Stops With Me” campaign following the documentary The Final Quarter about Aboriginal legendary footballer, and 2014 Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes. He was bullied out of the game, and the powers that be did nothing to stop it.

Racism has many definitions. A simple version is that racism is a prejudice concerning ancestral descent that can result in discriminatory action. Adam Rutherford, PhD

Leaders We Can All Follow

At ProVeritas Group Pty Ltd, we coach senior leaders from a wide range of industries, professional backgrounds, and ethnicities. Our clients are highly educated and whilst they seek career success, they also strive for growth in all other aspect of their lives. In other words, we collaboratively cultivate their self-actualising tendency, creating the right conditions so they can identify and trust those aspects of themselves that are most growth-oriented and bring them a sense of vitality, creativity, and wholeness.

As such, our clients seek to understand how they can become the best human possible within their environments. It is in this spirit that I continue to write the following lines. Leaders, whether in business, NFPs, government or academia, have the power and influence to change organisations and the world for the better. It all begins with becoming aware of the issue or problem, understanding its impact on their surroundings, and finding solutions to address it.

Understanding Racism Through Science & Ethics Lenses

To assist leaders with their own understanding of racism, here are some facts, from a scientific perspective:

  1. Race is a social construct – it is not a taxonomy to help us understand fundamental biology (i.e. genetics) and evolution. This doesn’t mean it’s unimportant – humans are social animals and the way we perceive each other and ourselves is important.
  2. Race is a self-reported representation of a combination of genetic, socioeconomic, and cultural factors. Understanding the sources of human genetic variation and the causes of health disparities are only helpful when researching interventions that would improve the health of all individuals.
  3. Humans are a rich symphony of nature and nurture, of DNA and environment. Thinking of DNA as a blueprint can be misleading as it implies a detailed, mapped out plan with instructions describing each component of our biology as determined by nature.
  4. Human variation is real – most of the physical differences we see in the world stems from local evolutionary adaptations. We see broad geographical clustering of people and populations based on sampled genetic markers, but the borders are fuzzy and continuous.
  5. Concepts of racial purity are not based in science (it is pseudoscience). People move and reproduce with great vigour. Mixture of different and separate populations is the norm. This has made humans successful in populating the planet!
  6. Genealogy and genetics have a close but highly imperfect relationship. DNA can tell us some interesting things about family history and ancestry however, its powers are profoundly limited by fundamental biology, and the behaviour of people (which is that we move and reproduce with remarkable breadth).
  7. Genetic differences between populations do not account for differences in academic, intellectual, musical, or sporting performance between the populations.
  8. The dominance of skin colour as a racial classifier is not based on science (i.e. historical pseudoscience). It was invented during the years of European empire-building and colonial expansion.
  9. Genetic ancestry tests may be fun however, we are not our genes, and we are not our ancestors. Biologically speaking, we have no meaningful genetic link to the many multitudes we have descended from.

To further assist leaders with their own understanding of racism, here’s some additional information, this time from an ethical perspective:

  1. The English word "ethics" is derived from the Ancient Greek word ēthikós, meaning "relating to one's character", which itself comes from the root word êthos meaning "character, moral nature".
  2. Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour”. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.
  3. Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.
  4. Three major areas of study within ethics recognized today are:
    1. Meta-ethics, concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how their truth values (if any) can be determined
    2. Normative ethics, concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action
    3. Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a domain of action.
  5. Business ethics (also corporate ethics) is a form of applied ethics or professional ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment, including fields like medical ethics. Business ethics represents the practices that any individual or group exhibits within an organization that can negatively or positively affect the businesses core values. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and entire organizations.
  6. When making moral judgements about influential people, both liberals and conservatives (according to the US definition) draw from a similar moral foundation, including care, fairness, and purity. This is extensively discussed by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in his new book Transcend.
  7. The most influential leaders have a purpose that goes beyond their “security goals” i.e. having many nice things, be admired by many, financial success, high-paying job, be well known, well-liked and popular. They also have “growth goals” e.g., help those who need it, contribute something lasting, make others’ lives better, be accepted for who they are, help improve the world, show and feel love.
  8. History shows that societies have become increasingly committed to the belief in freedom and equality, especially in the West. However, there are those groups that are systematically denied these entitlements.
  9. Racism arose because of the contradiction between egalitarian principles coupled with exclusionary and exploitative treatment of specific ethnic groups. This was a way of accounting for the fact that some groups were subjected to servitude and enforced separation from the rest of society e.g., ghettoization. Racism is a moral issue.
  10. In the aftermath of WW2, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) issued statements about race which declared that equality is an ethical principle concerning the rights to be enjoyed by all members of society and that equality was not predicated on any scientific conclusion about “racial characteristics”.
  11. There are many scientists still pursuing racial discrimination within the eugenics movement. Their work should continue to be irrelevant to the entitlements enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

What Can Leaders Do?

In recent years, training on diversity and inclusion has become increasingly popular in Australian organisations. This can include cultural diversity or cultural competence training, which may consider bias and discrimination with respect to race, ethnicity, and cultural background.

While their goals may be similar, conversations about racism are not substitutes for cultural diversity or cultural competence training. Similarly, these conversations should not replace work associated with Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs). They are, instead, additional tools for organisations in promoting more sophisticated and meaningful racial awareness. Various organisations deliver anti-racism—as opposed to cultural diversity—training.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently developing its own anti-racism training package, which will explore race and racism in Australia in-depth, and be run by an experienced facilitator. Leaders are encouraged to contact the Commission if they would like to know more about this.

As a Fellow of the Institute of Coaching McClean/Harvard Medical School, the author of this article has been participating in ongoing discussions about racism as part of the Antiracism Thinktank led by the IOC’s Chair, Margaret Moore. Of relevance to leadership coaching, the following suggestions are offered for ongoing dialogue among leaders and coaches everywhere:

  • Explore one’s own history of discrimination, prejudice, and racism, and how that impacts your worldview of racism and antiracism.
  • Commit to notice and explore your own racist ideas, thoughts, and behaviours.
  • Go beyond being a non-racist to being active as an anti-racist in whatever way you can.
  • With their invitation or permission, help the individual explore their personal and professional interests and experiences with racism, and expand their awareness of antiracism and its possibilities.

If anything in this article has brought up any serious emotional issues and you live in Australia, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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