The Dance of Divisiveness and the Body Politic of Narratives

Rethinking Change, Initiatives and the Conversations about Race and Racism

Hugh Anthony, PhD

A portrait of George Floyd is seen during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of his death in Minneapolis police custody, in New York City, June 8, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The death of George Floyd, an African American male by a white police officer with his knee in his neck in Minneapolis, USA and the words “I can’t breathe” ricochets in the annals of humanity’s soul, which provoked the subsequent protests around race, police brutality and social injustice. His inhumane death has created a movement that echoes in our minds and hearts a rallying cry for fundamental and sustained change for our collective humanity and in particular black and indigenous lives. There are implications for racial dynamics from a societal, organizational and individual level, with an urgency for action to change how black people are treated in global spaces.

We have seen the messages and statements from every major corporation on the planet decrying the tragedy met by George Floyd, even though they are architects of the dance of divisiveness. When the statements are dissected, there are no concrete strategies on how “we need to find solutions, together” as espoused by CIBC’s CEO Victor Dodig on LinkedIn from one of the big five banks in Canada with business portfolio in the US. When you glean these corporations’ websites, there is no obvious commitment to upending institutionalized racism such as the NFL, which led to black players calling them out(see video). Kiwanis International, a service organization blundered with its missteps of the narratives by its Executive Director, Stan Soderstrom whose message was bereft of compassion and empathy. No mention of the names of black bodies that lost their lives. The temerity of his message was the disdainful focus that “We are saddened by the vandalism and violence.

Even moreso, these organizations and corporations in their advertisements reinforce the status quo with their products and services for white people and the subtleties of perpetuating the dance of divisiveness, as seen in Telus’ commercial .. ‘Keeping Hope Alive’. Building on the aforementioned is General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra’s letter to employees noting that “GM will form an inclusion advisory board and commits to inclusion, condemns intolerance and stands up against injustice.’ Why do black and indigenous bodies need to be included, tolerated and not have justice? Is the body politic of narratives for black and indigenous bodies accommodated and tolerated only during Black History Month and National Indigenous History Month celebrations or in the case of the global protests, when it hurts the bottom line only? Are these corporations so blinded by their blatant bigotry?

Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolitan centre, the population is comprised of more than 50 per cent non-white people, yet Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute found that they only make up 3.3 per cent of corporate board positions, an increase of less than 1 per cent since 2014. It should be quite obvious that we all share a common humanity and heritage — earth; and while all human being matters, white people must confront the harsh truth, that they have systematically devalued black and indigenous bodies in our societies and organizations. If it were not so, we would not need to legislate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs or engage in proactive employment practices to increase the representation of black and indigenous peoples, [white] women [on corporate boards] and people with disabilities.

The importance of this moment and movement should not be lost, as it provokes candour and thought for leadership, organizations and civil society to examine how race matters in people’s experience at work and in everyday life. What do these racial dynamics mean for leadership, organizations and civil society when platitudes and statements are probably without compassion and empathy; and might just be a clever social media affront? This against the backdrop of the divisiveness of microaggression that Harvard University psychiatrist, Chester Pierce describes as racially charged “subtle blows … delivered incessantly” by white people on black and indigenous bodies. Common examples, as highlighted by Alia E. Dastagir in USA Today “… a white woman clutching her purse when walking past a black man (signalling black men are dangerous criminals) or “asking someone who isn’t white, “Where are you really from?” fuelling the dance of divisiveness, which accords the body politic of narratives that “reinforces the differences in power and privilege, and how this perpetuates racism and discrimination.”

Peaceful protesters ‘taking a knee’ in honour of George Floyd

This moment and movement require us collectively to act with intentionality to bring fundamental change. It requires a thorough deconstruction of societal norms, upending the personal behaviours and perceptions; and organizational values and norms that perpetuate the status quo in Canada and globally. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) highlighted that non-white people make up approximately 30 per cent of Ontario’s population, Canada’s second-largest province, however, “minorities are almost invisible among Ontario’s best-paid public servants, showing a lack of racial and gender diversity among the annual Sunshine List’s top earners.” The need to reframe organizational culture and civil society relations to be racially equitable, is not about inclusivity, because black and indigenous bodies are here, and have been for centuries, it is about dismantling white supremacy that foments structural and institutional racism in all its forms.

“You can’t get a solution if you won’t talk to the people that have the problem. You can’t ever have healing if the patient is left out of the operation room.”
Al Sharpton

In Canada, Osler in its 2019 Diversity Disclosure Practices highlighted that “boards are under increasing pressure from legislators, regulators, key stakeholders and the media to improve their … diversity practices …in Canada continues to evolve.” To this end, when we have conversations about gender equity, its focus is to advance white women, not non-white women and according to Statistic Canada (2018), there is plenty of work to be done, given that only 19.4% of women are on corporate boards, even though they are 56% of the workforce. Contextually, women of colour disproportionately are still facing discrimination and only makeup under 4.5% of women on corporate boards? The carpe diem for leadership and organizations is to dismantle the very DEI programs that are predicated on devaluing of black and indigenous bodies; perpetuating the overt and covert wars on those bodies that are fuelled by structural racism and systemic discrimination. Canada’s population of non-white people (visible minorities) is 7.7 million or 22.3% of the country’s population (Statistics Canada 2016).

Image courtesy of Council of European Canadians

Our histories are anchored on the dance of divisiveness with white people colonizing indigenous lands and enslaving black bodies. The body politic of narratives that are divisive and words that are offensive to black and indigenous human beings, without us, understanding the underlying and intended consequences; or what white people might have us believe are rooted in white supremacy [See related articleThe Legacy of Racism in Our ‘Home and Native Land’]. Canada, like its neighbour to the south, amplifies white nationalism, as it polarizes how citizens participate in society and organizations by espousing narratives such as racialized groups, visible minorities, marginalized groups and ‘at-risk’ youths. Then, in response to the divisive narratives, the question is left to be asked, who are the obvious majority? The use of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in organizations to assuage the egos of the white majority, needs to be re-examined. Moreso, now and in the post-Covidian era and post-George Floyd’s death conversations about how polarity plays out amongst our citizenry, our choices and participation in everyday society. Robyn Maynard in her book Anti-Black Racism, Misogyny, and Policing in Canada highlighted that “One of the reasons that racism persists in Canada is because our commitment to the perception of racial tolerance and harmony seems to be prized above the actual lived experiences of people.”

This moment and movement are a groundbreaking opportunity for leaders, organizations and civil society to take a deep dive to examine the dance of divisiveness and the body politic of narratives; and shine a new light on the dynamics of race, change and relations in organizations and civil society. Why should the Toronto Star in 2019 still be publishing headline such as “Surprising and disappointing’; data gap on gender, minorities at top firms” even with the Employment Equity Act (1995). This is because the dance of divisiveness that perpetuates devaluing black and indigenous bodies are evident in our organizations, institutions and civil society discourse. A suggested way to bring change is through peaceful protest and through legislation, it is difficult otherwise for white people to let go of the white privilege that’s progressed for centuries, oppressing black and indigenous bodies. We can learn from CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman diatribe on Twitter and ZOOM, not expressing solidarity for protesters or support for black athletes following George Floyd’s death, who are clients. To reinforce the dance of divisiveness, CNN Business published that his tweets were controversial when they were downright disgraceful, racist and reify the status quo.

Protesters for George Floyd, London,United Kingdom | Creator Hannah McKay — The World from PRX

The global protests (see video) is a compounded pendulum of the cumulative impact of structural racism and systemic discrimination. With racial inequalities profoundly impacting the physical, emotional well-being and mental health of black and indigenous bodies at all levels of the civil society and organizations. The issues highlight that the present-day dynamics are about deep-seated effects of the dance of divisiveness, that have dismissed, alienated, insulted and invalidated black and indigenous bodies. Therefore, amplifying the body politic of oppression that compound the challenges for racialized and marginalized groups in organizations and civil societies.

We need to foster a harmonized approach to deal with structural racism and systemic discrimination through a new humanized social contract framework, that is at the heart of every initiative. Understanding that racism is a construct, and move to deconstruct it from an individual and societal lens through collective conversations, processes and actions of dismantling disparities both explicit and implicit. In a research conducted by Liz V. Blitz, Binghamton University titled Addressing Racism in the Organization: The Role of White Racial Affinity Groups in Creating Change she noted that, the “recognition of systemic racism within an organization is a challenging and often confusing process. However, it requires the collective efforts of all individuals, especially white people to work together with their non-white colleagues, to address cultural responsiveness or shift their organizational paradigm toward anti-racism.” This requires a deeper equity lens work, utilizing the collective workforce as a resource to identify and rectify hidden and unconscious forms of bias that may go unrecognized by white people in organizations, institutions and civil society. A simple and powerful way to start at the individual and organizational levels is to commit to building awareness through knowledge by building collective affinity groups, reading clubs, movie moments to watch or listening to help understand life from black and indigenous bodies lens. From a structural and systemic lens as highlighted in the Anti-Racist Organizational Change Project to ‘bring meaningful change that prioritizes the voices of those most impacted by racism [which] is far-reaching and vital.’

The ideal way is to put the effort in to start the conversation, dedicate the energy, the engagement and enacting the changes required to achieve a truly equitable and just society with human beings at the centre of it, which I call the new humanized social contract. This new humanized social contract requires organizations, civil society and individuals to focus resources, to address cultural responsiveness or shift their paradigm and lens toward anti-racism; they can treat the issue as a top priority by setting goals, plan strategies and activities, and hold each other accountable. The relevance of change is more important than ever collectively because we need to challenge long-held assumptions. Also, reconsider the approaches and interventions needed to understand and advance black and indigenous bodies in the leadership, organizations and civil society. We need to examine collectively as human beings and team players both conscious and unconscious biases when it comes to staffing, leadership and examines our personal and organizational values, societal norms, behaviours, and perceptions. We need leaders to stop paying lip service to organizational change and civil society dialogue; and reframe the contentious coexistence with regard to the body politic of narrative such as ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

The need to reshape the organizational values and the divisive dynamics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)programs, to holistic communication of the dignity of every human being. Their natural existence requires more than programs, it demands discourse and structural change. This captive moment is an opportunity and a movement to start the work on the new humanist social contract that individuals, organizations and civil society collectively are active participants. The narratives and body politic will focus on the human beings at the centre of this new social contract, not narratives of marginalized and racialized communities, but unlearn conditioning and mental models, to embrace amplifying our humanity and a mindset that fosters equity, health and wellbeing. Black and indigenous bodies are already your equals, they are human beings, with their inalienable to right to life, liberty, justice and freedom.

We have this powerful moment and the energy of a movement to be a catalyst that works with black and indigenous bodies throughout Canada and the world. Change beckons, it is no longer okay that black and indigenous bodies that have faced institutionalized and structural racism, systemic oppression and dehumanizing treatment be acceptable. Through the allocation of resources human and financial, commitment, engagement, advocacy and intentional actions, let us start the work to create pathways that foster an equitable and just society for all human beings.

© 2020 Hugh Anthony

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Storyteller • Speaker • Strategist • Scholar leveraging experiences to help organizations engender purposeful impact https://www.linkedin.com/in/hughanthonyphd