Dismantling structural racism, decolonising and moving the centres of power have been at the heart of the RINGO process that re-imagine INGOs and the role of global civil society. Across the many innovations that have emerged from the process, structural racism was highlighted as a key barrier that impedes justice and equity.
As RINGO core team and Lab members join the #ShiftThePower Global Summit in Bogotá, the phrase “institutional racism” or “structural racism” will likely feature prominently in the conversations. Although there is a growing recognition of how steeped the non-profit sector is in colonial legacies and how this perpetuates structural racism, such conversations are often marred by lack of clarity about what structural racism is and how it is experienced. This in turn can impede taking practical action. Existing definitions of structural racism can be too technical or full of jargon to really land and stick.
As such, we recently developed a description of structural racism which forms part of a longer article on dismantling structural racism in organisations, published in the Journal of Awareness Based Systems Change.
Understanding structural racism
Our description of structural racism is made up of 7 points. Here we outline just three and give examples from civil society organisations:
- Structural racism in organisations refers to ways of thinking, feeling, being, and doing that are deeply woven into the fabric of an organisation and that routinely advantage white people and disadvantage Black and Indigenous people and people of colour. For example, in a CSO, this can show up in how decision making is shaped by Western norms, or in who is immediately felt to be trustworthy and credible. These routine advantages or disadvantages fundamentally impact whether someone feels that they belong, can advance, and get recognised and rewarded for their work.
- Structural racism in organisations is also expressed more formally through policies (e.g. HR policies), practices (e.g. promotion practices or exposure to opportunities), or procedures (e.g. how budgeting or business decisions are made). It might be embedded in the mission and vision of the organisation as well as its strategic plans and resource allocations. This can be seen for example, in risk mitigation policies and procedures that preserve INGOs to the disadvantage of their local ‘partners’, and in the pressure to adopt a fixed type of governance that is at odds with local realities.
- The implicit nature of structural racism means it can persist even under the leadership of people who are Black or Indigenous, or people of colour. Therefore, a change of leadership doesn’t imply that structural racism is automatically ‘fixed’. For example, in recent years we have seen many CSO Boards appoint a Black Executive Director and think “job done”. But that new leader has stepped into an organisational culture steeped in white supremacy culture and may themselves have been shaped by that culture (see Tema Okun’s work which refers to white supremacy culture characteristics such as fear of open conflict, right to comfort, and power hoarding). They will likely experience both active resistance and white fragility amongst some of the people they are leading and reporting to. And in myriad ways, they may find themselves set up to fail.
We need to move beyond talking about structural racism to taking decisive actions and steps to dismantle it. This is everyone’s responsibility, but the work will not be done if individuals who uphold and benefit from the system do not champion the needed change. The invitation and challenge is to lean into courageous action.
Moving from courageous conversation to courageous action
In our experience, one of the pitfalls of addressing structural racism is that it is easy to get stuck in having a courageous conversation without the requisite action. Courageous conversations can bring awareness to white people able to tolerate the discomfort of having their blind spots removed. They can gain real insight on the structural inequities that offer them unearned benefits or provide immunity from undesirable experiences and outcomes. Courageous conversations can also bring healing to many, when there is genuine listening and remorse (rather than fragile shame) from white people and when Black and Indigenous people and people of colour feel safe enough or brave enough to share their stories and experiences. However, courageous conversations on their own are not enough to shift power and unlock justice. Difficult and courageous conversations that challenge power and bring structural racism to light are a prerequisite to change but must not be treated as an end to change.
At RINGO, we recognise that to transform the INGO sector, we must experiment our way forward. This is because dismantling structural racism does not have exact pathways to be followed. The prototyping process supported people with diverse interests and perspectives to test potential solutions in a way that embraces uncertainty, complexity, creativity and diversity. For example, the participatory grant-making RINGO prototype has demonstrated that shifting power from international NGOs and donors is possible. Participants in the trial have reported, “not only a higher income, but reported improved confidence and more independence”.
Markers of courageous action
We must ensure that courageous conversation does not obscure radical action or serve as a pretence of progress. As we engage with the #ShiftThePower community and other forums, here are some markers of radical action needed to transform the sectors:
- Relinquishing power and ensuring that power is shifted from the presumed centre to a multiplicity of centres.
- Moving from the mere acknowledgment of ills to the active work of repair and redress.
- Allowing historically marginalised people to set the new ‘rules of the game’ as they tend to see what we otherwise would not have seen from a place of power and privilege.
- Taking concrete steps to address the material (economic, physical and social) and immaterial (psychological and emotional wholeness) conditions of global majority people.
Action at multiple levels
Addressing structural racism must circle between the deeply personal and the deeply systemic. Between these two extremes, we see organisations – individual INGOs or NGOs, especially in the global north – as key sites of change where experiences of belonging, use of power, and redress are most tangible. So it is enormously important that the #ShiftThePower global community is taking structural racism seriously and that changes at this systemic level in civil society can help propel change at the organisational level, which in turn requires individuals to change.
At the systemic level, radical action entails transforming norms and rules that govern institutional culture and structures. Structural and cultural change are both necessary and complement each other. Our approach to cultural change is about staying in conversation, focusing on awareness, relationships and trust in ways that address experiences of exclusion while the structural work continues. Structural change means making material changes to organisational practices, policies, and procedures, alongside changing who occupies positions of power.
At the personal level, it is important to create conditions that support people to bring themselves as fully as they feel able. For white people this means doing inner work around whiteness and white fragility, towards creating personal and collective awareness, cultivating readiness for conversations across racial identities about racism and becoming willing to let go of centrality and privilege. For people on the receiving end of structural racism, there is also work to be done, especially towards personal and collective healing. Affinity groups based on racial identity can greatly help this personal work.
In our experience of supporting organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières Southern Africa to dismantle structural racism and build a more equitable and just organisation for all, the key focus was on letting go of certain institutional cultures and structures that were structurally racist. This letting go required institutional agility and stamina demonstrated by senior leadership’s commitment to driving tangible shifts backed up by robust accountability mechanisms.
In conclusion, structural racism creates myriad exclusions from opportunity, access and power. The outcomes of these exclusions can be implicit and explicit, tangible and intangible. Addressing structural racism in the INGO sector entails understanding its systemic roots, the deep purpose, and the culture it sustains (see Freeth et al. 2023). Our commitment to dismantling structural racism cannot stop at the level of radical rhetoric but must spur radical, felt changes at the individual, organisational, and systemic levels.
About the Authors:
Akanimo Akpan and Rebeca Freeth are Senior Consultants at Reos Partners, an innovator and leader in systems transformation and collaborative action. Reos designs and implement outcomes that advance justice. They work in various systems that include peacebuilding and democracy, education, health, GVB, climate and just transitions, and the food system. Reos has been part of RINGO since inception.