Rae Carter: The public relations of racism: decolonizing leadership – vtdigger.org

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This commentary is by Rae Carter of Plainfield, a culture change and dialogue facilitator, healing navigator, and web weaver. She is the founder of EmpowR, a strengthening collective of womxn. She is a breast cancer and trauma survivor and former board member with Vermont Business for Social Responsibility, and former communications director with Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and Vermont Farm to Plate Network.

Do you earn a living in a perfectionist, paternalistic, or always urgent work environment? Are you starting to make the connection between the harms of the incessant drive to achieve with the expectations of dominant white “professional” culture? Do you know how the insidious ways of white supremacy culture play out in the systems and behaviors of toxic work cultures? Are you questioning the ways so many businesses and organizations are approaching antiracism and anti-oppression work as characteristics of the very way white supremacy operates? 

From my vantage point, as a recovering public relations, organizational and economic development “professional,” I see the wealthy, white, privileged, progressive elite doing more damage than they can comprehend from the pedestals of righteousness and exceptionalism on which so many Vermont leaders perch. 

When I was sick with cancer, and struggling to understand how I got so sick at age 41, I began to connect how toxic work cultures amplify and exacerbate the insurmountable expectations of dominant society. I experienced firsthand how burnout, disease, marginalization, exclusion and gaslighting affect minds and bodies that cannot keep pace with the insatiable appetite of capitalism — especially in the name of sustainability. I suffered a mental health crisis directly due to the toxic work culture I was working in and my inability to access the time, resources, or support I needed to navigate the harm I was experiencing. The anxiety, depression and repetitive cycle of “too much, too fast for too long” directly contributed to my public fall from grace, cancer diagnosis and multiple health ailments. 

Then I learned the dominant “professional” culture is white supremacy.

The racial reckoning over these past few years has opened the floodgates to the understanding that toxic work cultures, stemming from the entire way organizations are structured (especially nonprofits) and the pervasiveness of domineering white (especially male) leaders are point-blank examples of white supremacy culture. Sense of urgency, power hoarding, perfectionism, defensiveness, fear of open conflict, paternalism, either/or thinking, right to comfort, etc. (learn more at WhiteSupremacyCulture.info) are examples of so many of the harms I experienced, and I was made out to be crazy, because I challenged the status quo.

Since I have been rejected from the dominant Vermont workforce for speaking up about the harms I experienced in toxic work culture, I have been watching all that has been unfolding in Vermont over the past few years. I have also been listening and building relationships with people who work in or have since burned out from these cultures, yet who remain outside of the inner circle of the wealthy, privileged white leaders — the “usual suspects” — who have been running the show in Vermont for far too long. 

I’ve been watching the disgusting ways in which antiracism has become the biggest public relations campaign of our times — and how white leaders are falling all over themselves, seeking out magical Black people to solve equity issues (aka image nightmare) in the name of racial justice, while completely disregarding intersectionality and the layers of oppression in this state. Somehow centering BIPOC voices has been translated by the powers behind the messaging into performative allyship, rather than communicating the importance of addressing the systemic oppression of Black and brown bodies, as how we can create the systemic change to meet the needs of all marginalized identities (gender, sexuality, class, age, ability, etc.). 

Systemic change means the wealthy, white privileged elite would need to transform the very systems that uphold their wealth and privilege. Case in point—we need new leaders.

From what I’ve seen in Vermont over my 20-year career serving the wealthy elite, there is way too much ego at play for authentic change to be in integrity to true equity. I’ll never forget before I got sick and was canceled from the dominant Vermont workforce, knocking me down the economic and health ability ladders, how one prominent white leader said to me, “The problem with race in Vermont is the Black people are too uppity.” This was said by one of many white elites who are trying to “lead” us forward now.

Diversity, equity and inclusion work is decolonizing leadership. This is not something that can be accomplished in a workshop or training. The chance for tweaking systems and the behaviors behind them is in the past. Cultural and systemic transformation cannot be led by the same white leaders, organizations and institutions who have been upholding the harms of the status quo. 

New leaders, new structures, and completely different approaches are already being co-created by people with multiple marginalized identities, away from the white dominant gaze. Profit and return on investment are not the priority in these spaces. Reciprocity, community, relationship, spaciousness, healing, accountability, and collective nourishment, care, and support of each other and the land are centered as values — proving that, when the most marginalized people lead, everyone’s needs can be met.

Racial injustice, climate crisis, economic disparity, and mental health/health inequity are all interwoven in a complex yet also simple root-cause analysis stemming from capitalism. Solutions for the times that lie ahead demand leadership torches be passed to a full myriad of diverse identities in decision-making roles, recognizing all experience is education. Now is the time for rites of passage for the elders who have been leading via their positions of power — circulating from nonprofit to government agency to institution to demi-god Vermont companies in a cesspool of elitism that silences voices who do not uphold the insular Vermont narrative of exceptionalism. 

New perspectives, new leaders, new ideas, new solutions so we can reimagine and recreate for collective liberation. 

More of us are looking at anti-oppression and antiracism work for what it is — embodiment work, emotional work, decolonizing our behavior work. Racism exists because of how white people control bodies and so it is with the body where we can start. Racialized trauma affects all bodies and we are all harmed by white supremacy culture. The work of white bodies is different from Black and brown bodies. For us with white skin, it is feeling into our hearts and minds where we can begin the collective healing, and this requires us to be inclusive of all people with white skin, or white culture will never be safe. Our behavior is influenced directly from what we feel in our hearts and minds, and those behaviors are what influence systems. Plans and policies don’t change systems, people do. Workshops and trainings can start with feeling into our bodies, recognizing emotional triggers, and learning how to take responsibility for our behaviors and how we cause harm to other bodies.

I know this article is triggering and uncomfortable, yet these are the kinds of conversations more of us must be willing to have. I am calling on people who work in the current systems and who are fed up with the hypocrisy, greed, competition, burnout, anxiety, depression, racism and harms that link toxic work culture and white supremacy culture (basically one and the same). We have the power to change culture when we come together in community to support, demand, and upend the harms of dominant culture and white “professionalism.” We need to align because being vocal in silos is easily silenced by those with the most white power. 

I was told the other day, “We can’t just rip off the Band-Aid.” And my response is, that is exactly what we need to do because the only way we can heal the wound is if we see it fully for what it is. If we can de-center our value away from the individual ego to caring for the collective — and embrace all of our unique gifts — we won’t have to fear the individual fall. Instead, we will have co-created the community models that are already being woven beneath the surface, ones that can support us all in our needs.

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