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Resistance to Racial Equity Progress

Updated: May 31, 2023

Let's explore one of the most challenging parts of organizational change towards the active practice of racial equity.


There are three different ways people show up in DEI and racial equity work. Observers, Advocates and Resistors.

This is one way to consider how individuals show up in organizational change towards more active practice of equity and inclusion. Often I see that a majority of staff and board fall into the Observers category, while a small few as the consistent vocal Advocates for progress. Often, folks move among these categories depending on a variety of factors related to their intersectional identity, positional power, connectedness to the issue/topic and/or well-being.

The critical issue for many organizations is that Resistors wield extensive influence, authority, and power - meaning their power is exponential in relation to them being a smaller minority in the organization. Because of this, there are so many ways they can thwart and obstruct progress, both publicly and privately. That's another blog post.

Here are a few tools to navigate this:

First, re-center on Advocates and Observers.

Resistors will deplete the fresh air and energy around equity and inclusion work with little outcome to show for your efforts. We get distracted by these obstructionists and we all just really want people to want to do this work. Frankly, some people just don't want to. Refocus on those who are willing to try, to sort out confusion, those who will show up and participate. Normalize showing up. Support those who are willing to speak up and try. Invest in team members who are ready.*

*(note: willingness might also mean folks are unsure of what they should do. Willingness and expertise/certainty are different. You can create space for knowledge and tools to manage the uncertainty of what to do).

Remember, maintaining a focus on Resistors comes at the expense of the people who are the Advocates and Observers. It causes harm and pain to individuals who are ignored, overlooked, silenced, sidelined, censored, or otherwise marginalized (DEI Committees with no budget, leadership support, or organizational authority for example). It puts the work on the defensive and fails to seize upon the energy and vision of Advocates and Observers. Focusing on resistors harms those who hold racialized experiences, who are ready to show up for the mission and those who want to ally. Ask yourself - who is being centered in our work? Who benefits or does not benefit? What can we do to shift our gaze?

Second, show you believe in possibility.

Given overworked staff and underfunded budgets, we must choose to invest staff time and organizational resources wisely and with intentionality towards equity. Invest where change can happen - where opportunities exist. Design for change, progress and for opportunity.

Invest in supporting your DEI committee team members. Ask yourself, “What do our folks out in front need to keep going? Lunch? A break? A shout-out? A budget line? Time on the agenda?”

Design to deliver what you can to keep moving forward. Demonstrate that you believe everyone can lead on this work, that everyone plays a role and that opportunity to do better is abundant.

Third, create space for Resistors.

After re-centering on what's possible and finding your change-agents, turn to the Resistors. Consider asking them questions about why they feel like this is not mission-critical work, why they experience this work as not essential and what in their experiences leads them to disengage? Ask lots of questions, but choose them carefully. The questions should come from a place where you are centered in how they will show up or not, not if they will. They are meant to turn reflection back to the individual, not put you on the defense to justify this work.

Also, create specific and curated, facilitated spaces for Resistors to engage. The pain and harm resistors can cause when unchecked (or when their voices are the loudest and centered one) is immense. Create opportunities for 1:1 coaching and smaller, more focused learning spaces.

Consider experimenting with new DEI practices which allow folks a bit of space to see that everything is not being dismantled at once that they still have a space to show up in their own identity and that they can learn and test alongside their peers. Experimenting helps organizations and their staff unfold and practice new ways of behaving and working, without the condition of it being "permanent."

Fourth, create spaces of proximity.

One the best ways to break bias and resistance is to get folks out of their own shell and into new experiences. Get them out of the office, show up with new movies and videos, host your meeting in a community space, go to new restaurants for lunch. Get closer to spaces that do not reinforce homogeneity and white-dominant cultural norms.

Fifth, go easy.

You can't change everyone. Be gentle with yourself and your colleagues.

Lastly, patience.

The goal of engaging Resistors is not to start conflict or to shame people. It is to practice the work of inclusion from love and grace. You must aim to embody this work and model it, even when tested. Our work is to create a movement among those who are willing, who hold wisdom and experience and who are brave and loving. It is to welcome those who will participate and to be purposeful in our efforts. Our work is to make DEI and racial equity normal; showing that we can indeed create the future with our work now.

Now, take a deep breath, and go find your people.


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