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Combating Systemic Racism as a Form of Systemic Indignity

In light of ongoing protests across the U.S., international dispute resolution expert and Negotiation and Conflict Resolution lecturer Camilo Azcarate provided his perspective on dismantling systemic racism in response to the prompt below.  

Protesters are calling for not only police reform, but also comprehensive solutions to combat systemic racism. What are some specific strategies that legacy institutions and companies can adapt to implement positive change within their companies and in their surrounding communities?

Systemic racism is an emerging characteristic of a social system that fails to protect and promote human dignity.

Our colleague Donna Hicks, Ph.D. defines human dignity as our inherent sense of worth that results from our evolution as a species.  She has also highlighted that our human dignity goes hand in hand with our sense of vulnerability:

‘”What appears to exist side by side with the human desire for dignity is an opposing tension: our obvious vulnerability. Although we are precious and invaluable beings, our dignity can be violated very quickly, just as our lives can be ended in the blink of an eye. We are just as vulnerable to feeling unworthy as we are to feeling worthy. Because of the primacy of relationships, our sensitivity to others and the world leaves us open to injury of all sorts and, ultimately, to the possibility of death.”

Donna adds: “The human experience of worth and vulnerability is fundamentally emotional. When we sense that our worth is being threatened we are flooded with dread and shame- with destabilizing feelings that are painful and aversive.”

Combating Systemic Racism in Institutions and Organizations

The systemic violations of human dignity, including systemic racism, emerges from various agents of socialization as well as interactions between complex systems and institutions. These dynamics include the individual (patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving), the family (child-rearing, etc.), schools (curricula, etc.), religious and cultural spaces (values, etc.), economic structures (distribution of resources, etc.), and other structures (legal, political, etc.).

To combat systemic racism we need to:

  • Understand how systemic indignity emerges within institutions and organizations. To do this, we must first identify the specific elements detailed above and understand how they interact to produce complex dynamics that become attractors of systemic indignity, including systemic racism. 
  • Once such attractors are created, they will attract the thinking, feeling and behaviour of individuals, groups and institutions. They will also resist change efforts that are not informed by the understanding of the systemic dynamics underlying these attractors.
  • During the systemic analysis, we should also pay attention to the dynamics that are preventing the system from getting worse: the parts of the system that are already working to protect and promote human dignity.
  • Once we identify these dynamics and attractors, we can design systemic approaches to eradicate racism. Rather than serving as add-ons, these initiatives would act systemically to build up the dynamics that are protecting and promoting human dignity and weaken those that are threatening it.
  • This engagement must be long term. It should include a way to assess the impact of initiatives in the system, including unintended consequences, in order to adapt and change the engagement strategy as needed.