June 18, 2018

By Kay Knox

Being an Anti-Racist Takes Muscle Building

Equity Work Requires Muscle Building, Being an Anti-Racist takes muscle building.

In my blog series, My Year of Waking Up, I wrote about my growing awareness of implicit bias, privilege, structural inequities and racism, and how these things factor into our work to help all families in Washington thrive.   It was a good beginning, but in the months since I have come to realize that I have only started my learning.

I have come to understand that it is not enough to wake up, learn, and care (or just consider myself ‘not-a-racist’), I must work to be an anti-racist.  More plainly written, feeling shame for white privilege is not enough, I must learn to act.

Last month, I had coffee with Aiko Bethea, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Fred Hutch, whom I met through LinkedIn (I’m a big fan of the LinkedIn learning and networking community). Aiko recently posted an article from the Boston Globe, Using Your White Privilege to Fight Racismwhich emphasizes that learning and caring are not enough, and that people of color cannot be expected to change the policies and systems that challenge and oppress them daily.

I understand this, but learned recently that acting is not as easy as I thought.

Very early one morning in April, I was on the bus, on my way downtown for a business meeting. There were only 6-8 people on the bus, and as we made our way toward town, I was startled to see a woman move quickly from the back of the bus to a seat near me and begin to demand loudly that another woman, who was talking at a somewhat louder-than-average volume on her cell phone, stop talking because she was being disruptive and disturbing people. As the woman, who was a person of color and spoke a language other than English, continued to speak on her phone, the first woman, who was white, became more aggressive in her demands that she stop talking, and finally approached the bus driver and asked him to play the recorded “Out of respect for all riders, please speak at a reasonable volume” message.  By now, I was analyzing the situation:  Is this OK? Is this racism in action? Should I do something? What should I do?  Mostly, I just kept thinking it seemed random, scary and would hopefully stop soon.

But it only escalated. After playing the recorded warning message, the bus driver called out, “you need to stop talking on your phone because you are being disruptive, and if you don’t, I’ll call the police and have them waiting at the next stop. I can do that, I can call the police and having them waiting!”   With this threat, I became truly shocked and scared as we zoomed down the freeway.  I thought, “I need to do something, but what?” I’m ashamed to say that in the moment I came up with very little in the way of action ideas, other than trying to figure out how to tell the bus driver he was being very racist. Frozen and unsure how to act, we approached the first stop downtown, and the woman who was talking on the phone got off the bus, after exchanging clearly emotional words – which I couldn’t hear – with the bus driver.

I got off at the next stop, feeling unsettled, overwhelmed and deeply aware that I needed to learn how to turn my awareness in action. As I described my experience to Aiko, she said, awareness is certainly the first step, but ‘building muscle to act’ is the next step. Through conversations with Aiko and others, I’ve developed a list of actions I could have taken, and can be prepared to take next time. Just for the record:

  • I could have told the demanding woman that the phone conversation was not disrupting me at all, but that her escalating demands were scaring me a lot;
  • I could have asked the woman of color if she was OK, if she wanted me to sit with her;
  • I could have taped the incident;
  • And I could have called Metro to report the incident, and to question why the driver was not trained to de-escalate instead of escalate such situations.

All this is muscle-building.

As we journey down the health equity path at WithinReach, we are also building muscle to help reduce the inequities that challenge the health of families across our state but also in our personal lives. Our Intercultural Competency Committee provides our staff with learning opportunities to discuss, recognize and build muscle so that we are better equipped for all situations. Our March Board retreat was dedicated to building the leadership muscle to fully sponsor our health equity vision. Our Health Equity Workgroup is hard at work creating a set of principles to guide our equity work, and our staff spent a day late in May taking the next steps to design our path. We explored the results of our second annual Assessment for Culturally Responsive Organizations, and discussed key areas in need of muscle building at WithinReach.

More than anything, it is clear that we are on a long journey, and we will need plenty of muscle to get where we are headed. How are you and your business building muscle to move toward equity?

Read Kay’s Blog “My Year of Waking Up” from the beginning here!