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Deflective Language | Racial Equity

Updated: May 31, 2023

The more deeply I engage in the work of advancing racial equity, the more often I see the myriad of ways the real work is deflected, lost in the noise and hidden under the rug.

“Racial equity” does not accurately represent the work at hand – the work to redesigning and imagining a society that is not designed by a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority centered around a narrow white, male cis-hetero identity. The phrase “racial equity” deflects us away from the hardest work, and requires so much more time and energy (emotional and otherwise) to name the real work of undoing domination, centered- whiteness and white supremacy. We work so hard to “meet people where they are at” to bring everyone together, we often design frameworks that continue to center and comfort whiteness.

  • White people have historically been exempted by privilege from having a race. As noted by many scholars and activists, including Tema Okun in From White Racist to White Anti-Racist: The Lifelong Journey. In fact, we don’t really see ourselves as white because we are the norm and therefore don’t need to be racially described. We have little or no consciousness about our white privilege or other advantages we receive as a result of simply being white.

  • “Racial equity” tends to conjure images of black and brown faces because black and brown faces have been the ones racialized. Therefore, this work moves into communities of color and away from communities holding and protecting privilege. Further, this framing pathologizes black and brown communities. Ruth King in Mindful of Race says, “In general, when race is brought to the attention of whites, the assumption is that race will be about “the other” and not about them.”

  • This dynamic furthers the “us versus them” framing, which creates space for dehumanization, a zero-sum game and fear to breed. It also ignores that this work is about decentering the culture of whiteness that has idealized norms, behaviors, looks, and culture.

  • This work is about race inasmuch as colonizers used race as a tool to order society. It is more so about a mindset of hierarchy. This kind of mindset is the creative force that builds systems, structures and reinforces norms that protect the hierarchy – the power asymmetry.

  • This problem of imprecise language also puts those of us championing racial justice, equity and belonging work on defense.

We are required to respond to being named radical activists, required to justify this work as strategically, economically, and politically valuable, instead of morally and ethically essential.

We need to decolonize our language, teaching and facilitating modalities in order to shine a brighter light on this work. We need to examine how language continues to center comfort and whiteness and speak with more precision. We need to speak with more courage.


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